synths forever

why i like electronica

My wife says: “Why does everything you listen to sound like an endless chord or a stuck record?”
  Our son, who is five and likes “rock and roll”, says: “Why are they doing the same thing again and again? I don’t like it when they do the same over and over.”
  When I fire up Apple Music in the morning, starting off the day with some atmospheric glitch or energizing drum ‘n’ bass, the nanny sings louder like she’s trying to drown out the devil’s music with her hymns.
  My taste isn’t that weird. It runs from classical to jazz and from rock to electronica. Mostly electronica. Anything driven by airy or pounding synths is bound to perk my interest. I understand why the critics under my roof have a problem with repetition. Four to the floor dance can be brutal and mind-numbing.
  But there’s always IDM. Pretentious as the tag might be, it means a bit more melody and a little more sophistication, enough to keep the fanciful part of my brain in check while the other part is busy with the prosaic business of editing and translating.
  Like a lot of kids I had to take piano lessons and like many I didn’t enjoy it. We played from books of prescribed pieces even if we never got round to do the exams. I wasn’t interested in the tricky Telemanns and moody romantics in the front section, only in the rhythmic and punchy Bartoks and Kodalys in the back.
 Once during orchestra practice in high school a kid sat down at the piano and started a tentative jazz version of Sarie Marais, a folk song appropriated by our cultural forefathers. I was astonished. How was this allowed? And why couldn’t I play this way, too?
  As mentioned elsewhere, my first sight of analogue synths was in a concert hall in Durban. I sneaked in at the back with my dad and saw Rick Wakeman under his cloak of hair inside a magical square of keyboards stacked three high. As he put down his hands on the notes, a massive, mysterious wave came rolling down the aisles and hit the back wall where we stood. The strange and important sound of the synthesizer, as St Vincent calls it in her recited song “Over Borders”.
  Electronica lays logical patterns over a world that can seem so cruel in its randomness and unpredictability. Other structured styles do it as well – I just have an added liking for the endless possibilities of synths. The controlled flow of Klaus Schulze’s ambient pieces, the brutalism of Nine Inch Nails, the otherworldly order of Autechre, all have charms to soothe my “savage breast”.
  Further down in his often misquoted play, William Congreve wrote: “I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d, and, as with living Souls, have been inform’d, by Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.”
  The magical numbers and persuasive sound of electronica can make me feel a litle more in control on even the most chaotic days.

Music (re)discovered: Voodoo!

The delicate touch of Robert Drasnin

Exotica became big in the 1950s and had a revival in the 2000s which fuelled modern lounge. It's a reimagining of exotic settings in mostly the South Seas, Asia and Africa. The sound is mallet instruments, wispy flutes, hand drums, Chinese gongs, imitated animal noises and wordless vocals that are mostly sensual, sometimes eerie. The album covers typically feature a woman in skimpy animal print outfit, surrounded by ethnic musicians against a stylized island or jungle backdrop. “At its best, it's smooth and melodic, warm and exotic, sophisticated, sexy, and won't give you apoplexy!” said Robert Drasnin, who produced one of the genre’s classic albums.

Voodoo album coverOne track is enough to convert you to the music of Robert Drasnin. It is “Chant of the Moon”, the opener on his classic album Voodoo. Just over two minutes long, it has everything that defines exotica. Delicate bongos set the scene, a triangle comes in and then wordless, dreamy vocals carry the tune – the perfect start to one of the style’s best-loved albums.
  Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Les Baxter were the big names in late fifties lounge. Robert did mostly TV themes until he was asked by a record label to write some of that “exotic stuff”. He was given free rein – he could compose 12 new pieces and do what he liked with the orchestration. He came up with Voodoo, which was enough to make him join the ranks of the greats.
  This is how Robert described the recording in an interview with music historian Jeff Chenault: “The personnel were slightly different on the two sessions. I was only able to use the singer, Sally Terri, on one of the sessions and John Williams (yes, THE John Williams) played piano on the first date. One interesting aspect of the recording was assigning the distribution of all the various percussion sounds in the stereo field – a fairly recent development at the time. Of course, we recorded everything in complete takes – no cutting, splicing or over-dubbing.”
  His take on exotica was minimalist – short, precise tracks by an artists who clearly had a solid grounding in arranging and composition. There are hints of his jazz background throughout and the quiet piano is a highlight.
  Robert was born in Charleston in 1927 and did some war duty before he majored in music at UCLA and hit the road as an alto sax player with Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, and other big bands. After time in the Korean war he studied music composition and became an associate conductor of the UCLA Symphony. As musical director for CBS he wrote scores for shows like Twilight Zone, Hawaii 5-0 and Mission: Impossible, while finding time in between to do soundtracks for films like The Kremlin Letter.
  Four decades after Voodoo, there was a sudden surge of interest in exotica again. Robert did a sequel, 48 years after the original release, and started performing the music live. His take on the lasting appeal of the genre: “At its best, it’s smooth and melodic, warm and exotic, sophisticated, sexy, and won’t give you apoplexy! It's not Stravinsky or Charlie Parker, but it does go nicely with tall, cool drinks and thoughts of a faraway tropical paradise!”
  Robert Drasnin died on 13 May 2015 at the age of 87. He’s remembered as an elegant composer, teacher, mentor and musician. The 39 minutes of Voodoo is just a small part of what he achieved.

REVIEW: Fatima Al Qadiri

Playing the simulation game

Fatima Al QadiriSometimes an album can be analysed to death. So much can be read into it, imagined around it and said about it by the artist that it becomes almost impossible to hear the music by itself. Never more so than with experimental music, which by its nature is wide open to interpretation.
  This happened with Asiatisch, the debut album of Fatima Al Qadiri. Her background, what she has to say about her world and the genres she’s tied to by critics merge in a drone that almost drowns out the album.
  In her case, it’s understandable. She gives good interviews and also has a moving story to tell about growing up in Kuwait in the 1980s. “It was extremely comfortable and sheltered,” she told The Guardian last year. “I constantly had a feeling of it as sublime: the country is very flat, the sky is huge, and the buildings very low, so you’re always looking up into this expanse”.
  The world she knew was destroyed when Saddam Hussein invaded in August 1990. Her parents risked their lives as part of the resistance movement, while Fatima and her sister saw their country becoming ever more surreal. “Kuwait was burned to the ground. It was an ashtray nation. In that alien landscape, I’d wake up and see the illuminated darkness that was the daytime burning of the oil wells. The black sky was lit by the sun. I felt I was living in a sci-fi movie, as if I was in Blade Runner,” Fatima says. Along with her sister she found escape in video games like Desert Strike. Later she moved to America and started a new life that, at first, seemed just as unreal.
  This explains a lot about the mix of elements in her music on the highly rated debut album. It starts with a cover of “Nothing Compares 2U”. Let the mind games begin: her version is called Shanzhai, which is a Chinese term for counterfeit Western goods. It is sung in pretend Cantonese and leads into an album Fatima describes as “a virtual road trip through ‘imagined China’”. She creates a simulation of a culture. It’s all quotes inside quotes and irony upon irony as she explores the Western concept of China, which is probably as far off the mark as some Western perceptions of the Gulf.
  Cultural commentator Adam Harper grouped her with other musicians under the tag “distroid”, which he described as a mash-up of disturbing, dystopian, android and steroid. That seems like a bit of analytical overkill. What you hear is simply experimental electronica with a tenuous link to the fleeting genre of sinogrime, which played around with Eastern scales and instruments. She mixes stripped beats and empty spaces with synthesized flutes, chimes strings and voices. Those are not the prettiest sounds – at times they grate here just as they do in the piped music of shopping malls. So the way to enjoy the album is to read between the sparse lines. The danger is reading in too much.
  Fatima is an artist to watch and it will be interesting to hear what she comes up with next. It does feel, though, as if critics teased the meaning behind her album out of her interviews and videos, rather than finding it in the music. There is an intriguing concept at work here, but maybe it’s not communicated all that well. Somehow the music isn’t as compelling as its backstory.

Grimes and Crystal Castles

Two women on the edge

Canadian musician Grimes

Good Lorde, there are a lot of otherworldly girls in their twenties floating around the edges of mainstream pop and making music that is theatrical, fanciful, dreamy, or all of those and more. That's not a bad thing - you can find one for every mood and play them as background sounds while working or sit back and drift off into daydreams while listening.
  At the moment I'm exploring the music of two Canadians, both born in '88 and effortlessly alternative. One is a solo artist, video maker and all-round art machine, the other left her band in October 2014 to do her own thing.
  Alice Glass was the voice of Crystal Castles, working with songwriter and producer Ethan Kath. They made non-dance music, drawing on club sounds and effects, but taking them to a darker corner of electronica with bursts of drastically distorted sounds and vocals. Alice's gloomy lyrics suggest she doesn't think life offers much to dance about anyway. It is uneasy listening, but it is rewarding.
  The other new voice on my playlist, Grimes (Claire Elise Boucher), also defies labelling and has said she makes ADD music: “I go through phases a lot.” She blends, transforms and flirts with so many styles that hers can best be defined by what it is not. It is based on pop conventions, but quickly moves somewhere else before looping back. She's heavy on layering and vocal overdubs (up to 50 at times) and wrote her album Visions during a few weeks of total isolation and very little food, pushing herself until her “subconscious started filling in the blanks”.
  The result is vocals and words whirling like pixie dust over light electronic beats. In there are statements about feminism, dealing with an assault that left emotional scars and feeling displaced as she becomes a touring star.
  Both women both sing with passion and empathy. Alice can go from a spaced-out whisper to a distorted howl in one song, often leaving you wondering what she's on about. Grimes sings with a dreamy slur that makes her lyrics even more elusive. But with both you pick up phrases and sense emotions that keep the music engaging.
  Pity that there won't be more from Crystal Castles, but there is Alice's solo debut to wait for and a fourth album (update!) has brought Grimes the chart success she deserved.


For your listening displeasure

The Internet Archive, where old new media goes to be embalmed, has a fascinating collection of what they call ephemeral films. Most are educational, industrial or promotional shorts for a specific time and purpose. They are consumer goods, to be used and discarded. The intriguing subsection here is AVGeeks, the work of fans and collectors. They make collages that form intriguing snapshots of an era or theme. There is no commentary and what you make of it, is up to you.
  The word ephemera, I didn't know, comes from the Greek for “things lasting no more than a day”. It was first used for written or printed stuff not meant to be kept - pamphlets, flyers, cards, posters. Now it includes film and audio as well.
  Vaporwave makes me think of those films. It was a music style that appeared in 2010 and disappeared as soon as someone gave it a genre tag. The roots were supposedly indie dance movements with quirky names like seapunk and witch house, but it sounds more like the musical version of what those video geeks do. Trademarks are synth samples from past decades, covering anything from techno pop to New Age instrumentals. These are reshaped and overlaid with drastic pitch or tempo changes and heavy reverb. Vaporwave tracks aren't tidy little compositions: they can fade in, end in mid-phrase, stick like old records and suddenly take off as if the artist got bored and decided to turn up the speed.
  Listening to it is like walking through a half-deserted, dimly lit shopping mall after hours. Muzak seeps from every corner, bouncing off the high ceilings and hard floors. In passing, you might pick up bits of sound from TVs in a shop front and overhear snippets of conversation as window-shopping families amble past. The effect is curiously comforting, but also a little disturbing, which may be why some felt vaporwave was a parody and critique of consumerism.
  The name links to vaporware, the term for products that are announced but never made. The music spent most of its brief life on sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The folks at Wikipedia consider the major artists to be Chuck Person (now doing interesting experimental stuff as Oneohtrix Point Never), James Ferraro, Saint Pepsi, Blank Banshee and Vektroid (Macintosh Plus). That seems about right. Not everything under this tag is worth hearing. Some artists ended up making spa soundtracks as bland as the styles they were mocking. Sometimes a cheesy sample is just cheesy. And even in music that disregards structure, a little creative coherence goes a long way.
  It's hard to explain what makes you play a vaporwave set. Maybe it is a quiet act of social rebellion, because it does hit the spot when you feel disgusted by some part of the consumerist life cycle. Maybe you're doing a tedious piece of work for money. You've been duped into a bad buy. You've just wasted an hour on a “rated” new TV show. The telemarketer from yesterday phoned again. You walked into a wall of Easter eggs in your supermarket. Your post box is crammed with flyers and a sports calendar with a fridge magnet on the back, brought to you by a grinning estate agent. A politician in a bespoke suit tells you to tighten your belt.
  Vaporwave is like a cynical friend mocking these banalities - and you, for taking them so seriously. When the music becomes annoying, you've exceeded your dose. Move on. Come to think of it, aren't you feeling a little better already?


The true sound of music

For the life of me I can't understand why music companies don't boost their CD sales and reduce piracy by drastically lowering their prices and doing marketing telling the MP3 generation how much they're sacrificing for the sake of convenience.
  To sweeten the deal, they can make the booklets and jewel cases an enjoyable part of the experience. I still crack a smile when I take down Beck's album The Information. It has just a graph pattern on the front and includes sheets of stickers, related to the songs, which you can use to create your own cover. The double album Manhattan Research Inc., featuring the musical experiments of electronica pioneer Raymond Scott, comes as a CD-sized hardcover book with the discs on the inside flaps. His story, classic pics of his equipment and background on each track make up 140 pages of fascinating reading and browsing.
  As for sound, even old favourites sound new in a better format. A while ago I bought a turntable with a USB port so I could record some rare vinyl to my desktop. My brother and I tested it with a sentimental favourite from the ’80s. As the needle dropped, we were hit by a mighty wave of swirling, sparkling sound that ebbed and flowed around the room. It was as invigorating as a dip in the ocean.
  The same happened when I downloaded some albums in FLAC format and a little player for them. Suddenly my desktop speakers opened up while the woofer shuddered with pleasure under the table. FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) can reduce a music file to half its size without losing any of the original audio. And if you must, FLAC can be transcoded to MP3 without the usual drop in quality.
  Legendary audio company Harmon has released a short film, The Distortion of Sound, in which music greats like producer Dan Aoki, film composer Hans Zimmer and acoustic engineers explain why compressed music is as flat as a ringtone.
  MP3s offer smaller files - you can store more of them and they can be streamed quickly. But the MP3 format isn't the only one option and it comes at a price. It doesn't deliver what the artist created and it dumbs down our ears. Many people now don't even realise how much they miss, playing or streaming MP3s on dock stations, tablet speakers or in-ear headphones. But recorded music hasn't been around for long and moved quickly from vinyl to compression. MP3s are just the current preferred format, not the last word in audio.
  So try something else for a change. Go retro with a record, spin a CD or explore lossless formats like FLAC. Listening to MP3s is like looking at low-res scans of paintings. It's not the same and it's not what the artist wanted you to have. We look for quality in everything else we buy, so why not in music, something that is such a big part of our lives?

Giant Sand

a country of music

Giant Sand

For a serious music fan, this is quite a confession to make. I listened to Giant Sand for the first time last week. I know. A venerated, influential band that's been around for three decades, with an intriguing front man, Howe Gelb, often called the godfather of an entire genre.
  I read music books the way some devour recipe books. Recently I got the idea to work through an old edition of 1 001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. The plan was to give all of them a listen, to expand my taste and shake up my brain a bit. Once again, as in similar books, Giant Sand loomed large. This time I lent them my ear. I tracked down one of their mentioned classics, Chore of Enchantment, put my dislike of all things country on hold and listened.
  I don't see myself investigating every corner of alt. country, but Giant Sand is bigger than the genre they pioneered. While listening, I browsed for more about the group and came across an excellent overview in
The Quietus. It includes this quote from Gelb: “Perhaps people's allegiances in this world aren't so geographical, nationalistically speaking, but their nations are more sonic. The same music is being heard and cherished in Japan, as well as in Denmark, as well as in South Africa. What if existence is so much a state of mind that you determine your own country by what you listen to?”
  There I was sitting in Cape Town in the name-checked South Africa, being drawn in by songs in a style well outside my usual musical habitat. It is adventurous, melancholy, insightful, unbound by genres or trends.
  Music might not define where you fit in, but it does have the power to make you feel part of a bigger world even when yours seems to be shrinking. This happens before you know it - work, chores, routine, tedium can put blinkers on even the most inquisitive eyes. There comes a day when you find yourself not looking around and taking in any more, but rather treading overfamiliar paths. Music often pulls me out of this rut. Reading about music and digging for new or old treasure can open my bleary eyes again.
  1 001 Albums… covers hundreds of albums I would never have tried, could not find, or missed for whatever reason. Many still don't move me even though I can appreciate their strengths and appeal. Giant Sand, though, tug on a few dusty strings that haven't been plucked in a while.
  At the end of my trip through all those rated albums, I'll hopefully be left with spirits lifted, mind refreshed and several new musical allegiances - one of them will be to Giant Sand.


playing the outlaw

Voëlvry album cover

On Saturday 1 October 1988, Northern Transvaal was beating Western Province by one point in the Currie Cup rugby final in Pretoria. I was in the studio in Crown Mines, Johannesburg, with sound ghuru Warrick Sony. We were recording Voëlvry. It took self-control not to drool on the rack of pro synths with their full-sized, touch-sensitive keys, especially once my little bassline boomed from the studio monitors.
  For a man who had made the demo on a Yamaha Portasound, this was heaven. Loops and samples were not an option, so I had to play in every synth line by hand and start over if I made a mistake. Then I moved in behind the microphone. I'm so shy about singing in front of people that I asked Warrick to turn away.
  The next night (I think) some of the musicians featured on this ground-breaking album gathered at the Shifty Records studio to dream up a name for the compilation. We couldn't. Next thing I knew, I got my free copy of the record in the post and saw it had been named after my song. Voëlvry means "outlawed" and fitted perfectly with the movement and the lively campus concert tour that followed (I didn't perform, obviously).
  Another surprise on first listening to the record: I had an idea for a guitar solo in the bridge. It sounded horrible and mercifully producer Lloyd Ross replaced it with a mimimalist synth bit. He might have saved the song from extinction.
  Soon after we shot the video at a popular hang-out in Cape Town. I don't remember the date or much detail, but I must have been the director's worst nightmare, since I came from the Robert Palmer school of vocals: like a bad ventriloquist, I moved my lips only slightly. One of the UCT drama students who were acting as extras diplomatically asked: “Can't you try to open your mouth a bit more?” I couldn't. One last ordeal was a live TV interview to explain the meaning of the song before the video debuted on an SABC youth show. They were worried parents might take it the wrong way.
  Thanks to Lloyd for uploading all the videos in Shifty's 25th anniversary month. I got to see mine after many years. Not that bad, actually, and our three-year-old is running about shouting: “Pappa was on the ’puter, he sings ‘fool fray, fool fray’.” For the time being, his dad is his hero along with Spider-Man.
  Watch the clip on Youtube. It's from an album that made a strong statement and was great fun at the same time. Thanks to Shifty for letting me be part of it.

Mallu makes magic

Singer Mallu Magalhaes

There is something free and reckless in the art of budding stars in their late teens or early twenties. It's as exciting and volatile as spring weather and passes as quickly as it appeared.
  Science says the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain that matures. It's fully functional at around 22, when it starts planning, making decisions and moderating behaviour.
  Wild teens, reckless students… Blame a premature prefrontal. Those young guns don't give a damn. Yet. And that comes in handy when making art.
  When she turned 15, Mallu Magalhaes asked her folks to give her money instead of presents. She had been playing guitar since eight and writing songs since 12. With the cash she recorded four demos, shot some videos and uploaded them. A year later she recorded her debut album and soon became a Brazilian star.
  Last year she made her US debut with Highly Sensitive, a batch of songs picked from her three earlier albums. She sings the English in a casual American drawl. Some tracks are in Portuguese or French. The overall sound is bright, playful and refreshing. No compromises — if it sounds right, it stays. The lyrics are all heart: “Lonely, no you'll never be lonely again ⁄ Because you have me now ⁄ I'm messy but I'm totally yours ⁄ My clumsy hands will hold you”. Pop doesn't get much more charming than this.
  Mallu is 22 now. Hopefully that prefrontal cortex won't rein her in too much. Overthinking and too much control would spoil what she offers. There's nothing wrong with maturing, but no reason to become inhibited. Sometimes it's good not to give a damn.

Standing right next to Buddy Guy

Some people remember details. For others a great moment wears down over time until only the core remains. I had to look up the date (it was late November 1996) when the Hard Rock Cafe opened in Cape Town's Waterfront. Can't say what the weather was like, but it must have been a warm evening. The sliding doors downstairs were wide open. Buddy Guy was playing on a low podium with a few backing musicians. I didn't think I'd ever get to see one of the blues legends live, but there he was. In front of him was a small group of fans. Most of the invited guests were upstairs, talking, mingling, relaxing. A few leaned over a railing and looked down on the band.
  At some stage Buddy walked to the doors and out on to the quay. Someone followed with a guitar amp. Buddy picked his spot and started playing. I saw a gap and found myself standing right next to him. The view was Table Mountain on the right, still lit up at night back then, the quay in front with people ambling by and stopping to look on curiously before walking further. To the left was Robben Island and in front city lights faded towards dark mountains in the distance. I looked at Buddy's face, trying to gauge how he saw it. But he was lost in the sounds he was coaxing out of the strings.
  Up to then he had been playing those feisty solos that bristle with a lust for life. I love them. Now he slipped into something gentler. His fingers seemed to be searching his familiar guitar for new sounds, notes that would travel as far as he could send them, like questions hoping for answers. No idea what the song was or how long the moment lasted. But I was with him and the moment is still with me.
  On his album Rhythm & Blues there's a track called “Whiskey Ghost”. It's familiar booze blues (“Whiskey ghost / keep on hauntin' me / Whiskey Ghost / just won't let me be”) with a swampy swing that reminds you of the True Blood theme song until he lifts it with a solo like the one on the quay that night. It refreshes one of my great musical memories with every play. This is not an album I'll put on often — it has too many guest vocals, some quite strident, and a rather restrained atmosphere. But I'll return to “Whiskey Ghost” to relive standing next to Buddy Guy, as close as I've ever been to musical greatness, while he created something unforgettable.

Five songs that banish the blues

There's More to Life Than This (Björk, Debut) It's about sneaking out of a party, but you could take it as a song about stepping back for a moment and rediscovering simple pleasures. Because there's more to life than what you're slaving over right now.
Bones theme (Tocadisco Remix, The Crystal Method) Many TV themes are little more than notes drowning out white noise or a string of emotive chords to manipulate your mood. Not this one — and the remix highlights each of the tune's tasty ingredients. It's like enjoying an energy bar more by relishing each mouthful. Suddenly you're ready to try again.
Loser (Beck, Mellow Gold) “Man, I'm the worst rapper in the world, I'm just a loser,” thought Beck when his producer played back the first take of the song. That gave him the idea for the punch line: “I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me”. Read what you will into the nonsense rhymes, but Loser can make you realise you're being too hard on yourself.
2 von millionen von sternen (2Raumwohnung, Kommt zusammen Remix Album) It's about a fleeting romance, but there's no regrets in Inga Humpe's light voice and no melancholy in the reassuringly familiar beat. The song makes any dreary day seem better. Come to think of it, most of their songs do just that. Lyrics Translate has the words in English.
2 Bit Blues (Kid Koala, 12 Bit Blues) He uses an ancient sampler to cut and paste blues bits for an album as raw and virile as the source. Maybe the best cut on the CD is 2 Bit Blues, which boots you out of the creative box.


music that gives you breathing space

When they were asked to record a 40-second jingle for a TV ad in 2000, Tommi Eckart and Inga Humpe probably never expected it to launch a solid career in electronic pop. But the tune was catchy enough to stick and a year later they made their debut as 2raumwohnung with the album Kommt Zusammen ("come together"). The couple had been recording since they met in the old East Berlin where both settled shortly after the city was unified. Now it was time for awards, hits and even a run of 33 weeks on the German charts for a later album.
  There are so many guitar bands in the world that they have to go against the grain a bit, says Inga. Their music is light, danceable pop – the kind that sounds like it's been around forever and doesn't seem to have a limited shelf life.
  Inga writes the lyrics and considers it very hard work, though she enjoys it a lot. "It always feels like a huge mountain I have to climb," she explains, "and I want to write texts I can still take on stage in ten years." You don't have to be fluent in German to hear that the lines and rhymes are tight and that she comes up with some lovely images. She sings them in a wistful, airy voice over smooth arrangements and deceptively simple tunes.
  The album Melancholisch Schön ("melancholical beautiful") might be a good place to start. It has 12 of the duo's best-known songs re-recorded and given a bossa nova flavour. The one that benefited most from this treatment was "Sexy Girl", the single from their debut, which became a big club hit again.
  The band has done unusual things, like playing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was called a "music discovery project" and meant to blur the lines between musical genres.
  Achtung Fertig ("ready, set"), was recorded mostly in California and influenced, according to them, by the latest sounds drifting through Los Angeles. The usual undercurrent of melancholy is a bit stronger this time and it might overwhelm some tracks, but the CD offers as much as the earlier songs.
  I often listen to several 2raumwohnung albums back to back. What I get from them is something comforting for long drives, awkward parties and those times when I go a little dark, sitting alone in the work-from-home office.


the subtle rhythms of life

The problem with having gigs of MP3s on your hard drive is that you lose track of what's there and why you downloaded it in the first place. Recently I clicked on “Most Played” in iTunes to see what I pick most often while working. High on the list was a name I didn't expect: Actress. Never knew I was such a fan.
  Darren Cunningham came to music via Wolverhampton and playing soccer for West Bromley. When an injury ended his sports career he became a DJ and producer. He formed the label Werk Discs, then spent four years on his debut album, appropriately titled Hazyville: “I was smoking a huge amount of weed, and working literally from ten ’til ten, not eating, not looking after myself,” he told The Guardian.
  He considers his music experimental electronica: “I record on really minimal gear, but at the same time I'm always focused on trying to remove the music from the computer,&lrquo; he explained to Factmag after the release of Hazyville. “I don't want it to have a computer type sound, so people who listen to the album should be a bit bemused as to what it was made on; how it was made.”
  His trademarks are decayed, worn electronic tones and either no beat or a solid 4/4. “For me it's the rhythm of life; your heartbeat is in 4/4. Techno and house, these are the things that keep me in equilibrium,” he says. A deeply religious man, he sees his music as a kind of penitence for flaws and sins.
  The album Splaszh from 2010 was a reinterpretation of styles, from Prince to John Carpenter's soundtracks, a little less spacious and airy than what would follow but mesmerising all the same.
  In the Guardian interview he explained the starting point for his album R.I.P. as death. “That immediately puts you in a space that gives you some hope,” he believes.
  The wonder of the man's music is that it fits any moment, any mood. It's uplifting without being naieve and fluid without losing structure. Actress is part of my personal soundtrack now.

android lust

heavy harmonies

The sound of her band will remind you of Nine Inch Nails and it turns out Shikhee, the woman behind the industrial outfit Android Lust, has a lot in common with Trent Reznor. This is how she describes going home after touring with her album Devour, Rise and Take Flight in 2006. “It's always a bit scary. I start to doubt myself, reacquaint myself with my studio… and wonder if I can still do it,” she says. “It took until late 2007 to get back to writing.”
  Shikhee was born in Bangladesh and started listening to David Bowie at 19 when his early albums were re-released. She liked the abstract stylings, but found the exact sound she wanted in the industrial band Skinny Puppy. “I had no idea what to do to make music like that,” she said in an MTV interview. “It was totally foreign to me. I was doing acoustic stuff… I didn't have the means to do that. I didn't know. I bought this studio keyboard, a Yamaha 500 PSR. It had MIDI capability, but I needed to buy an external sequencer to program it. That was my entry into programming electronic music.”
  When you listen to Skinny Puppy, the Canadian outfit formed in 1982 and labelled the fathers of electro-industrial, you realise how much Shikhee adds to the genre with her vocals. She has a light voice but always stays on top of her heavy electronic mixes with their grinding beats and thick distortion effects. The lyrics are vintage Goth and just like Trent she has a knack for building a powerful riff out of a few simple elements. On The Animal she added live instruments, using her touring band in the studio for the first time, and also recorded New York street noise which she used to build rhythms and ambient loops. None of this softened her sound – it's still human woman against machine. And unlike a lot of the light-versus-dark stuff, her albums don't become predictable and don't lose their power.


pure as glacier water

Here's one you don't hear every day: a music style inspired by the ice age and stone age. Geir Jenssen's “Arctic sound”, as it's been tagged, took shape when he studied geology and despite the petrified roots his music is at the cutting-edge of electronica.
  He was born in Norway in 1962 and bought his first synth in 1983. He joined an electronic trio but left after two albums to do his own thing. After trying a blend with acid house and new beat as the main ingredients, he took the name Biosphere and created an album which was rejected by his record company, which called it unmarketable. Luckily electronica fans picked up on it and when Patashnik came out three years later, Biosphere was a familiar name. One track was used for a Levi's TV ad, which didn't hurt either.
  Geir went seriously minimalist with the album Substrata and since then he's taken it further by making the beats a background element, allowing the melodies and sounds more breathing space. The film Insomnia (later remade by Hollywood) featured a classic Biosphere soundtrack which made it even more memorable. He also wrote music to be played with the legendary Russian silent film Man With a Movie Camera and for the movie NOKAS, about the biggest robbery in Norway's history.
  Geir is a serious mountain climber – he did the 8 210 metres to the top of Cho Oyu in the Himalayas without oxygen. His sport is an inspiration, but also gives him a chance to record natural sounds. Field Recordings from Tibet, released under his real name, is a fascinating sound diary of his biggest climb.
  Too many ambient musicians seem to load up some loops, tweak a few settings and see what happens, but it sounds like Geir really composes his pieces. They have a structure and flow you'd normally expect from modern classical giants like Steve Reich. Not that you have to get all intellectual about it – this is music as pure and refreshing as glacier water.


Some of the dark stuff

When he left Napalm Death, drummer Mick Harris was keen to create a new style based on experimental metal and dark dub. With former Napalm singer and bassist Nic Bullen he formed Scorn, whose unique sound got the tag “dark hop” and was linked later to the dubstep craze of the noughties. Bullen didn't stay long and Mick made his debut as sole member with Giral, which had more loops and ambient effects, making it (more or less) a link between old and new Scorn.
  The 2002 album Governor shifted towards regular dubstep. After that Scorn was quiet for a while with Mick producing ambient tracks as Lull, fooling around with drum ‘n’ bass as Quoit and working with John Zorn's experimental jazz group Painkiller.
  After a five-year break, Scorn returned with Stealth. It's a highly rated album that drew in dubstep fans, but might seem a bit convential if you've fallen for the earlier, more menacing stuff. Maybe it's just another phase - though the 2008 EP Super Mantis Part 1 is more of the same.
  When he was asked what inspired him (in a 2008 interview with Tokafi), he said: “Living in a shit city, Birmingham, a city I hate with a passion. Going to the river and being by myself there is a major influence. Escaping from it all.”
  It's interesting to hear Mick (as Scorn and Quoit) among soul mates on the 2008 compilation Forwards in Backwards Time. The double album as a whole feels a bit mechanical, like exercises rather than experiments in drum 'n' bass. If anyone can break this mould, it would be Mick. You can never know where he's going next, though with recent works like the EP Yozza (2011) he's back on the old track. It links to the early Scorn albums: ominous, thumping, intense music that's likely to get more plays than the other dark stuff in your MP3 folder.