Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - Fifty Great Releases, 40 - 31

40. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

This album put Sufjan Stevens firmly back on my radar. I had kind of lost interest by the time Illinoise had been out for a year, and it seemed like his material after that was rapidly declining in substance. An album of lesser Illinoise outtakes; a Christmas collection. Then eventually came The Age of Adz, which totally defied my expectations and found Stevens exploring a much more electronic sound, full of urgency, anxiety and doom. Melodramatic this is, to the extreme, and the closing track exceeds 25 minutes and finds Sufjan busting out the vocoder, a regrettable last-minute miscalculation in my opinion. The best moments of the album though are mind blowing arrangements on the level of Tyondai Braxton's crazed Central Market.

39. Brian Eno - Small Craft on a Milk Sea
A slightly uneven bag, but the better tracks are the best Eno has released in decades, equal to his classic recordings. I think Eno should leave the beat-driven techno-esque tracks to younger souls and play to his strengths, namely creating mesmeric soundscapes tinted with direct melodies. Fortunately, the majority of the tracks on this album are of the latter type, and they are exquisite.

38. 1000names - Illuminated Man

1000names are a Bulgarian duo who sound a little too close to pre-Cosmogramma Flying Lotus for comfort. That said, this album is undeniably jammin', without one wasted track. Their craft is superbly polished, with all the tricky syncopations and lush textures that define this genre. Unfortunately it sounds a little too much like a product of its times to get higher on my list. Still, if you're a fan of this type of music, you won't regret having this one in your collection.

37. Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

First let me admit I haven't listened to this one enough times. It's a tough pill to swallow, even though individually just about each song is quite strong. Three disks is a lot of music to push on anybody, even if it's really nice music. I just can't muster the endurance to figure out the plan of this album, its structural arch. But when I pick a song at random, I'm reminded of all the reasons I love Joanna Newsom, and plus, her voice has gotten better than ever. I think this could click for me in a big way yet, but for now Ys remains her masterpiece.

36. Asura - Asura
Here is another album with some slight potential to be confused for early Flying Lotus, but fortunately Asura mostly works in a pallet that is distinctly softer and cooler than Mr. Ellison's, resulting in an album that is more laid-back and impressionistic than any by FlyLo. It's gotten to the point that a lot of people are producing impressive sounding beats, so this is no longer enough to declare a musician as artistically relevant. Good thing Asura can go beyond that and make a tightly-focused album with a sense of movement from start to finish, always accessible and groovin' but with an introspective edge. This impressive debut clearly has a honed statement behind it (though I won't attempt to translate it into words), and it promises great work in the future.

35. Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal

I had the great pleasure of seeing Oneohtrix Point Never rearrange gray matter at the Low End Theory, a most unlikely venue for his music. There are no beats here whatsoever, and he didn't drop a single one that night, either. I heard one guy shout "Play some real music!"; he clearly didn't appreciate or understand the trip OPN was taking the rest of the club on. To my great amusement, one couple standing right up by the stage was making out for almost his whole set. This is visual music that will show you worlds you didn't know you could dream about. The opening track is a burst of ultra-intense noise in dozens of colors (brace yourself!), and from there things settle down into much more dreamlike territory for the rest of the ride. The sound of an astronaut with dementia dreaming of an artificial intelligence disintegrating into an accretion disk of blue-hot plasma - that is something not too far from OPN's sound.

34. Shigeto - Full Circle

Another instrumental hip-hop album, and there are more to come. This stuff has just been exploding the last couple of years. Once again, a lot of the tropes you find here were essentially pioneered by Flying Lotus, but it's important to consider that nowadays the beat situation is like what happened with jazz and its great innovators - a figure like Bill Evans comes along, and suddenly everybody is playing stacked fourth voicings. Now, people still make effective use of those voicings today, and it isn't really fair to say they're ripping off Bill Evans, just like it would be unfair to call this album a ripoff of Flying Lotus. Shigeto is blazing his own intriguing trails, prioritizing lyrical melodies and nonstandard instrumentation (I hear some traditional Asian sounding instruments, hearkening to Shigeto's ancestry). Importantly, this album easily elevates itself above being a "collection of beats" and sounds like an artistic statement.

33. Gang Gang Dance - Kamakura

Only 15 minutes long, the single track on Gang Gang Dance's Kamakura EP covers more interesting territory than your typical band has recorded in their whole career. The first 10 minutes are a whirlwind ride through various mutations of funky breaks, fragmented hip hop, grime, dub, and general psychedelia. Things then wind down to an elegantly lyrical and melancholy finish, as Lizzi Bougatsos provides her singular vocals for the first time on the recording. People accustomed to her frenetic whoops and tribal babble won't find any of that here, only beautiful restraint. GGD have been on a serious roll with God's Money, Saint Dymphna, and now this. I regard them as the finest band of the weirdo-indie Brooklyn scene; they're certainly the hardest to pigeonhole.

32. Jason Moran - Ten

This album sees Jason Moran pulling out a lot more stops and displaying more baffling inventiveness than Lost In A Dream, album #47 on my list. This kind of jazz isn't to everybody's taste, because they do a lot of crazy things with time signatures and tempo changes and unusual scales, that might be regarded as being mostly for fellow musicians to appreciate. As I hear what they do, it always serves a greater purpose, not to show off chops. "Gangsterism Over 10 Years" is bliss in groove form - I don't hear too much jazz that makes me go "this just rocks so hard". Backed by a high-caliber and very dynamic band, Jason Moran displays his full potential on this thrilling record. Jazz is so far from dead!

31. Guilty Simpson - OJ Simpson

Another Madlib invasion, this is one of the least conventional rap albums of the year. It's bloated at 24 tracks, and only about half of those have rapping. The rest aren't disposable skits, however, but a collection of great Madlib beats with thought provoking spoken word samples that tell a story. This makes OJ Simpson an unabashed "concept album", and a somewhat challenging listen - Guilty's rap tracks are so good, one almost wishes it was a more straightforward collaboration. But with Madlib on deck nothing is ever straightforward, and repeated listens reveal this to be a deep, robust and nuanced journey, even if it seems unfocused at first.

To be continued!

2010 - Fifty Great Releases, 50 - 41

It's that time of the year and best-of lists are cropping up all over the web. I think a lot of people out there agree that 2010 has been a spectacular year for a lot of varieties of music. To my ears, hip-hop has been particularly strong, and I can't wait to see how it continues to develop in the new year. As I want to mention quite a few albums, I won't be able to say more than a few words about each one. The order I list these albums in should really be taken with a grain of salt - I'm only going to mention things that made a solid positive impression on me, and in many cases albums will be so close in quality that I'm just going to have to make an arbitrary decision in ranking them. Also, my current stylistic predilections are obviously going to bias this list in favor of hip-hop, jazz, and ambient music. Without further ado...

50. Kanye West - My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy

I'm basically getting this one out of the way as soon as possible. I do indeed think it's good enough to warrant a mention, and leagues above Kanye's last effort 808s & Heartbreak, but there has been a lot more exciting music this year. As usual, Kanye's beats are on point, his lyrics by and large unmemorable. That some people regard this as the essential album of the year is beyond me. It's possible I'm being unnecessarily harsh here - this album is well worth a listen, but I feel the need to counteract the hype slightly if at all possible.

49. Hidden Orchestra - Night Walks

A relatively recent discovery for me, and one I plan to revisit many more times. Darkly orchestrated noir beats that remind me a bit of the Scandinavian neckbreakers Xploding Plastix. Groovy, jazzy, and easy to enjoy.

48. Caribou - Swim

I want to love this album, as it's by a beatmaker with a penchant for psychedelics who also happens to hold a PhD in mathematics. Despite these qualities in its favor, this hasn't yet transcended beyond just solid dance music for me. I can definitely see it growing on me, though - its lush arrangements and catchy melodies are admirable.

47. Paul Motian - Lost In A Dream
This is one of three albums on my list featuring pianist Jason Moran, who I believe to be one of the most significant young players on the scene today. Moran has a lot of styles under his belt, being a student of the peerless virtuoso chameleon Jaki Byard, and like his teacher he switches between them with arresting grace. Compared to his album as a leader Ten and his work with Charles Lloyd Mirror, however, this album suffers a little bit from "typical ECM syndrome" - the tunes mostly plod along, exploring dark modalities and using a lot of open space. Part of this is on account of Paul Motian leading; for decades now the drummer has been developing an unorthodox approach that provides pure color but little in the way of regular or driving rhythms. Still, this is really beautiful work.

46. Black Milk - Album of the Year

Album of the Year isn't the album of the year. But it is a vital example of contemporary hip-hop true to the roots of the genre while exploring fresh territory. Black Milk raps and makes his own beats, and is better at both activities than most musicians who do only one or the other. Funky fresh.

45. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises

Here's one of several albums on my list I could easily be underrating simply because I haven't been so into this type of music in the past year. If melancholy acoustic folk is up your alley, consider this one of the best releases of the year. All of Sun Kil Moon's albums are great and this is no exception.

44. Baths - Cerulean

This is the first and so far only release on Anticon that has really caught and held my interest. That's because it doesn't sound like an Anticon record at all. Baths is a frustratingly young (as in I'm jealous) beatmaker who actually went to my high school in the San Fernando Valley and is now more than holding his own in LA's Low End Theory scene. Unlike most future-beat crafters, Baths makes his own (processed) vocals a major part of his sound, which is bright, childlike and pastoral while also distinctly weird. The vocals are odd, but this is ultimately too tight and catchy to resist.

43. Extra Life - Made Flesh

This is one of those albums I've listened to a couple times and decided I love, yet rarely find myself wanting to put on. Most of that has to do with that avant-Medieval-metal hasn't been my cup of tea this year, but this is still amazing, forward-looking music that sounds like no other band I'm aware of. Charlie Looker works in a style that has the potential to be utterly cheesy, but executes it with total sophistication. There are more than a few "holy crap"-inducing flourishes on this remarkable album.

42. Vijay Iyer - Solo
Like with Caribou, I have automatic admiration for Vijay Iyer for his holding a PhD in math. Then there's the fact that he's an excellent improviser on the piano. On this album, his first playing by himself, he opens with a beautiful, shimmering cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature". Like, how much cooler could this guy be? That said, the album isn't higher on my list because even I with my love of formalized and mathematical music can understand the criticism against Vijay Iyer that his playing is at times a little too rigid and structured, a little bit lacking in sensitive dynamics. The album also feels a little more like a collection of different songs than a unified statement. Regardless, there's a lot of fascinating and moving content here.

41. Dimlite - Prismic Tops

One of the most tricky to unlock mostly-instrumental hip hop albums on my list. There's plenty here that's immediately accessible, but beat-alchemist Dimlite layers in so many unexpected left turns and proggy conceits that I still don't have a clear understanding of how the album unfolds, after several listens. This is a compliment; few beat-based albums are slow to reveal their secrets and able improve with time. Richly complex yet always able to make your head nod.

To be continued!

Friday, October 15, 2010

AFTA-1 - F O R M

AFTA-1 - F O R M cassette

Long time no see. I'd like to say a few words about one of my favorite albums of 2010. Since the untimely passing of J Dilla, and no doubt partly due to the wide interest in this kind of music his death provoked, the art of beat making has evolved in more directions than I'd care to try to count. Many of my favorite releases of the year fall under this general umbrella of experimental beat-based music, including Gonjasufi's hallucinatory A Sufi and A Killer, Dimlite's strange and colorful Prismic Tops, Teebs' stunningly beautiful Ardour, and Flying Lotus' undisputed masterpiece Cosmogramma. I'm happy thinking of this era as a new Golden Age of Hip Hop, with just as much vitality and a lot more diversity than the late 80's/early 90's.

But I digress; this post is really about a little gem of an album called F O R M by Manuel Moran, aka AFTA-1. Before I talk about the music, some words about the physical product are called for. AFTA-1, a painter besides a musician, came up with a very clever and appealing idea. He made a large scale painting, sliced it up into 100 equally sized rectangles, signed and numbered each one, and slipped them into cassette holders. So everybody who buys the cassette, which I think there are still a few copies of for sale, gets a piece of something special besides the music.

Oh, the music. This album has been in near-daily rotation for me since it came out in June. It was a release I eagerly anticipated, as AFTA-1's 2008 debut Aftathoughts Vol.1 was and still is a favorite of mine. That album features a super cool, spacey, laid back style, with a lot of infectious Rhodes and synth melodies, slick and tricky percussion, and absolutely beastly basslines. Basically it's your perfect kickback-on-the-moon soundtrack. F O R M works in the same general aesthetic, but this time everything is better, an impressive feat considering how good things already were. It is more mature, deliberate, cohesive, and concise than its predecessor; it is also simply deeper. There are rhythms on this album not quite like anything you've heard before, like the ingenious syncopation of snares, cymbals and bass throughout "Trust", the woozy, slowly lurching outro to "The Time In Between Suite", or the disjointed subdivisions of the gorgeous closer "Amor Es". All of the tracks are seamless, and the themes and harmonic progressions are so cohesive as to give the album the feel of one long song (with lots of nice changes). Raindrops intermittently appear throughout this long song, including at the very beginning and ending, giving F O R M a nice extra layer of unity as well as ambiguity.

Here's what AFTA-1 has to say about the concepts behind the album:
Form by definition is the mode in which a thing exists, acts, or manifests itself. It is the foundation by which all things are perceivable in the physical realm. Our reality takes form as we visualize to manifest it. Once it is visualized it can be created physically. Becoming part in building our exterior existence as a reflection of what we are within; Life, Love, Creation.
As Pete Rock sez*, "Play Dis Only At Night". This is an extremely nocturnal album, equally good for city-crawling and for staying at home and examining the soul. It's vying for a spot in my Top 3 of 2010 along the likes of super-heavyweight contender Cosmogramma and the almost too pretty to be real Ardour.

My piece of the painting


No download link, but you can stream the entire album for free at (you can purchase it there too!), and hear AFTA-1's newest music at

*Pete Rock - Petestrumentals

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Leap Across A Chasm - artwork and a few reviews

Thanks so much to the Giraffe King (aka artist extraordinaire Niv Bavarsky) for producing this beautiful illustration for the cover of A Leap Across A Chasm. If you don't know what that is, well, please read the post directly below this one, or simply click here.

Huge thanks to the blogs Curious!, Origami, and - for these kind words:

In related news, a year ago today Danielle Baquet-Long passed away. I know I'm not the only one out there who, despite never knowing her, has been profoundly changed by her singular aesthetic approach and appreciation of life and love. Rest in peace.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fennel - A Leap Across A Chasm

At long last, I feel my album is ready to share with the universe.

So... listen to it all for free here!!

Obviously reviewing my own album would be a bit ridiculous, but I'll write a few words about it here just to give people a sense of what I was going for. Since I discovered Shuttle 358 sometime in late 2007, I have been totally compelled and fascinated by the notion of ambient music. My interest in the genre stems from its versatility of purpose, its diversity of sound timbres and song structures, and its unrivaled capacity for sheer beauty.

At the beginning of my last quarter at UCSB a few months ago I started feeling really nostalgic and sentimental. Reflecting on the past four years at that place, it became clear to me that I had to make some sort of sonic tribute that would keep me from forgetting the sounds and feelings I associate with the school. Simultaneously, I was falling more and more in love with the music of Celer, two of whose albums I reviewed here in February, and I also wanted my album to pay homage to them.

About six weeks ago, when the album was around 75% done, I read online that Dani Baquet-Long of Celer (rest in peace) actually attended UCSB, and graduated two years before I enrolled. This came as a genuine shock given my internal reasons for starting this project. My final month at school was colored by the haunting realization that the two subjects I was honoring in music are actually inextricably connected. I wonder, is there something in the water at UCSB that drives people to the shelter of warm drones and subtle hums?

For the music, I combined field recordings from various locations around UCSB, including its beautiful lagoon, its nearby beaches, and on campus. On top of these raw recordings I added drony tones generated from piano, flute, voice, glockenspiel, guitar, and other instruments with a lot of reverb added. The harmonies employed are influenced by jazz and 20th century composition, especially Bill Evans and Toru Takemitsu.

Anyway, I hope I've gotten across that this has been an extremely personal endeavor. Very very big thanks go to Sarah, Daniel, Niv and Sepehr, who all made invaluable critical suggestions and creative contributions to the project. I'm currently working with Niv on getting artwork made and turning this into a physical package, but for now, I hope you enjoy it as a high quality digital download.

One last thing. It would be supreme hypocrisy if I made payment for this album mandatory. Hell, just look around this blog. So listeners at the bandcamp page have the option to download A Leap Across A Chasm for free or else make a donation. I'm not expecting to make much for this, but anything is a world of help for a recent college graduate that didn't land a mega job.

Please share this with anyone you can think of interested in independent art music!

More frequent reviews on Giraffe Kingdom incoming!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza - Azioni

I've had Giraffe Kingdom on an unofficial, temporary hiatus for a few months now to pursue some other projects - namely, finishing my last quarter at college and recording an ambient album. I should graduate within the first week of June (yay), and the album is so far sounding nicer than I imagined it would, though it still needs a lot of work. Needless to say I am beyond excited to eventually unleash it here.

That said, I've been sad to let GK languish (again), and it's about time I post something fresh and exciting. To that end, here are two disk's worth of some of the most far out music I've ever come across, that of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. This was a group of free improvisers formed in the mid 1960s, which was unique in that every player was an accomplished composer as well as performer. The band, founded by Franco Evangelisti, had an "open" lineup and went through several mutations. Before a concert, the current members would meet daily to practice and define the scope of their musical language; on stage, the only rules were to listen to each other intently.

All of the members of the Gruppo di Improvvisazione were high art composers, and their music can be heard partly as reactionary against two of the dominant schools of élite music in their time - 12-tone/serial compositions following Schoenberg, Berg, & Webern, and aleatoric (chance based) works following John Cage. Arguably, their music is nothing other than aleatoric music with no plan whatsoever, but this extremely crude description does nothing to give readers any understanding of how the band actually sounded. Unfortunately, no words that come to my mind can really do that. Shocking? Provocative? Alien? Primitive? Futurist? Timeless? Ugly? Beautiful? One thing's for sure: it ain't jazz.

This is absolutely essential listening for any fan of the notion of free improvisation, from lovers of Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert to Anthony Braxton's For Alto to Supersilent, 1 through 9.

Did I mention that Ennio Morricone was the group's trumpet player? That's right, the composer of some of the most memorable film music ever scored (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) found time on the side to play in one of the most radical, fringe, niche bands that ever existed. And he was amazing in that context, too - another reflection of his genius.

Happily, the DVD that comes with this box set, featuring precious footage of the Gruppo in its prime, has found its way to YouTube. Find yourself an absolutely free hour, strive to forget all conceptions you hold about sound and music, and watch these. You won't be quite the same after.!v=P1S6WsvfI6w&feature=related!v=QRuY0Q7KVzc&feature=related!v=aF8hqcLUf2Y&feature=related!v=wCFyyGeCCRo&feature=related

Track info:

Disk 1 personnel for all tracks:
Mario Bertoncini
Walter Branchi
Franco Evangelisti
John Heineman
Egisto Macchi
Ennio Morricone

1. "Kate" (7:09)
2. "Es War Einmal" (25:49)
3. Untitled (18:23)

Disk 2

1. "Fili" (14:02)
w/ Branchi, Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Heineman
2. "Concreto" (13:29)
w/ Branchi, Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Heineman
3. "A5-3" (8:01)
w/ Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Kayn, Heineman, Morricone, Vandor
4. "Trix 3" (prove concerto '67) (4:37)
w/ Heineman, Morricone, Vandor
5. "Fili 2" (prove concerto '67) (11:11)
w/ Branchi, Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Kayn
6. "A7" (7:04)
w/ Branchi, Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Heineman, Kayne, Morricone, Vandor
7. "A5-4" (prove concerto '67) (4:28)
w/ Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Heineman, Kayn, Morricone, Vandor
8. "A7-2" (prove concerto '67) (8:01)
w/ Branchi, Bertoncini, Evangelisti, Heineman, Kayn, Morricone, Vandor
9. "Trio" (10:44)
w/ Branchi, Heineman, Vandor

Download Disk 1
Download Disk 2
Purchase the 2 CD + DVD box set Azioni from die Schachtel and you'll also get a fascinating booklet containing interviews with Gruppo members, and a poster.

Can't thank Dory enough for this thrilling music.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dorothy Ashby - Afro-Harping

This is one of my favorite jazz albums of all time. It's pretty amazing that it was possible to hear music like this in 1968 - in many ways its aesthetics anticipate hip hop. Listen to the opening track "Soul Vibrations" with its deep funk bass line, psychedelic theremin melodies, and Isaac Hayes style string arrangements (earlier than Hayes wrote his) and tell me it isn't perfect material for a Dilla-style chopped up arrangement. This remarkable album features the near-peerless jazz harp master Dorothy Ashby (1932-86) with an anonymous band including flute, strings, vibes, organ and many other instruments, playing a set of jazz standards in a Latin/Pan-African style. Pretty much no other jazz group I know of sounded like this in the late '60s (this is nothing like Miles Davis' fusion work at the time), though by the '70s many bands were working in a similar style featuring laid back grooviness, catchy, soulful hooks, and rhythms borrowing equally from African music and funk. There isn't a walking bass line to be found, only pure earthy grooves in short repetitive figures.

Dorothy Ashby wasn't the first jazz harpist, but she was one of only a few that achieved fame, and she was undoubtedly the most innovative. Albums like In a Minor Groove (1958) demonstrate her prowess in bebop, sounding as deft and nimble on her enormous harp as a jazz guitarist, but producing a fuller and more magical sound. Then there's The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby (1970), which is to Dorothy Ashby's discography what Ys is to today's star harpist Joanna Newsom's - it's an incredibly ambitious, sprawling masterpiece, unprecedented upon its release, with lush arrangements, multiple genres (jazz, funk, East Asian, Indian, and African traditional) crammed into one, and even singing and spoken word from Dorothy.

Afro-Harping isn't nearly so grandiose as that, but in my opinion it is her best album. Her improvisations throughout the album are very lyrical and memorable, taking a purposeful, less-is-more approach to soloing not unlike the playing of Grant Green, but more chordal and less linear. Not a single moment falls flat. The whole band gels beautifully throughout, and the percussion will have you tapping your lap. Their hybridization of funk, soul, bebop, and modal and Latin jazz makes perfect sense and still sounds fresh today, and the album at a scant 35 minutes seems to have infinite replayability. This comes with just about my highest possible recommendation; music that just makes you feel good.


Monday, March 8, 2010

MC NoCanDo - Jimmy the Lock

Winner of Scribble Jam '07, dynamic host of the world-famous Low End Theory club in LA, and slaughterer of hundreds of would-be battlers, NoCanDo is going places. Scratch that actually, because his debut Jimmy the Lock on Alpha Pup proves that he's arrived. It's easy to see why a record like this is a formula for success: it combines equal parts unpretentious, fun party themes (this is a sex, drugs and rock 'n roll record, says NoCanDo), high-brow social commentary executed with undeniable poetic skill, and cutting-edge future production and scratches from an LA all-star roster including Nosaj Thing, DJ Nobody, Thavius Beck, Daedelus, Free The Robots, Maestroe, the Gaslamp Killer and D-Styles.

This is the first release I've heard out of the cerebral LA underground hip hop scene that I think has real potential to break through to a wider audience, especially thanks to great singles like the club-shaker "Hurry Up And Wait". With sparse, ultra-bassy production from DJ Nobody and all too many killer lines ("Man, I'm as cold as they come / If I was holdin' a gun, I'd shoot a hole in the sun"; "If I keep rushin' man I could be called a Communist / I break speed limits and laws and all my promises"), there's no reason this song can't be 2010's "A Millie". At the end of the track, NoCanDo suddenly breaks into double-time, and closes the incendiary stanza with the non-rhetorical question "When did all the passion leave?!" This is mainstream-sensible rap with real passion.

Another highlight comes toward the end of the album with "Skankophelia", a hilarious and clever twist on the obligatory girl-tribute track with sparkling clean Daedelus production (sampling Curtis Mayfield's "Makings of You" - classic!). NoCanDo's flow on this track is refreshing in how it features some nice sized rests and changes of scansion rather than the more typical approach of a constant stream of syllables. "Lady, gimme a update for fuck's sake / You're so precious; it's no fetish / Your whole essence is pro- / -fessional whore; I'm head over heels, no question / I suffer from a bad case of skankophelia." Though this track displays it best, NoCanDo's flow is anything but monotonous throughout the album.

Other tracks expose the less glamorous sides of Los Angeles, revealing, critiquing, and at times reveling in its grimy and morally questionable underbelly, full of "Blue collars / Bright lights / Brown skies / And bullshit" (hook to the burner "Exploits and Glitches"). Tackling issues like drunk driving, promiscuity and unprotected sex, race, sexuality and California's passing of Prop. 8, drug abuse, and street violence, Jimmy the Lock has a lot of legitimate and intelligent content without ever sacrificing fun, character and attitude. Also, there isn't one skit on the entire album.

Likely to be one of the most talked about underground rap releases of the year, NoCanDo's major studio debut has, pound for pound, more brains, swagger, and neck breaking beats than just about anyone can shake a mic at.

[Link removed]

Post script: many thanks to Alpha Pup Records for reporting this review on Twitter!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Celer - Cursory Asperses and In Escaping Lakes

Cursory Asperses and In Escaping Lakes are two exquisite, related albums by Celer, one of the finest and most prolific ambient/drone/minimalist groups to ever grace the earth, though tragically they did for only a few short years. From their formation in 2005 to their sudden end in the summer of 2009, Celer recorded no fewer than 30 full length albums, and this is a modest lower bound. The astonishing thing is that I haven't yet heard one that isn't an honest to god masterpiece.

Last summer, s of - introduced me to Celer via their album Capri, at the time their most recent release. I was just beginning to get deeply into the Texas duo Stars of the Lid, who today remain one of the best and most widely known drone groups; s had made some lofty claims that Celer are the genre's best kept secret, with albums outclassing even SotL's best. Capri impressed me immediately, and within a few weeks I was beginning to get seriously attached to it. Then, disaster, with the passing away of Danielle Baquet-Long and the consequent dissolving of Celer.

Since then I've done some exploring of the band's discography, and one thing I've found is that Capri is something of an anomaly. It consists of 29 tracks, most of which are shorter than 3 minutes, and only one of which exceeds 5. In a sense it's almost the ambient equivalent of a hip hop beat tape, like the recently blogged about Rap Beats Vol.1 by Samiyam. While Capri is an extremely enjoyable listen, I'm of the opinion that Celer's long form drone pieces, which are much more numerous in their catalog than albums like Capri, are even more sublime, because they allow much more time for the pieces to breathe and develop. Cursory Asperses and In Escaping Lakes are two of these.

These works are easy enough to describe superficially. The hard part, which might be impossibly hard, is capturing in words what really makes them special. Very subdued, ambient drones float, in stasis, with hardly any sense of time. Except, they don't quite stay in the same place...they ebb, they pulse in long graceful arcs. Saturation levels in the drones shift in gentle grades. Here a higher frequency cuts in for a few moments and dies away; there a deep rumble of bass moves shadowy just at the threshold of perception. Listen to any 10 second long sample of the piece, and it sounds like nothing is happening, and yet after a few minutes of listening it's really hard to tell if we're basically in the same place, musically, as before. That's because we're often not - these pieces aren't loop based, but are really organically changing over the course of their long durations. Cursory Asperses is just under an hour, and In Escaping Lakes is about 40 minutes long, and so far their structures have been too subtle for me to understand in conventional terms like ABAC or ABCD and the like. The pieces do have distinct movements, but they blend into each other so finely that borders are nearly impossible to reckon. Learning to detect and make sense of the paths these pieces follow is part of the joy of listening to them.

Of course, with sounds this good, it isn't really necessary to worry about or even give a thought to form. It's all too easy to put this on and just soak in the beauty, preferably while lying down with the lights off. Cursory Asperses features field recordings from around a stream, among other instruments with so much reverb applied you can't tell what they are, and sounds light, open, and cool. The drones are sinuous, slow and searching, like calm streams branching off a central river represented by the more bass-heavy tones. In Escaping Lakes is the sequel, and it has a lot more bass; play it after Cursory Asperses and the effect is like a slow plunge into still, cold depths.
Cursory Asperses is a series of pieces based around the single concept of slow movement. Throughout the process of composing and mixing, we kept in mind, and based everything on the form of certain field recordings, made at an isolated stream in the woods, of the slow trickle of the water, and of laundry hanging on cords in the backyard, flapping softly in the wind. While combining these field recordings with recordings of instruments, we mixed them into a more whole form of slow movement, with delicate, thin layers, but which we also intend to display our ideas interpreting the soft nature of Slow Flow. (Slow Flow)
In Escaping Lakes is the sequel to Cursory Asperses, previously released on Slow Flow. Where Cursory Asperses focused on the slow movement primarily of streams, and other field recordings, In Escaping Lakes continues this pathway to expand into a deeper subject, of lakes and their surroundings. Inspired by a painting by Anthony Feyer, In Escaping Lakes was made to demonstrate enclosure, depth, and closeness in still places. (Fluid Radio)
Fans of Celer still have 20 or more unreleased albums to look forward to. They have been coming out like hot cakes, and all of them are amazing.

Download Cursory Asperses (apologies for the low bit rate, but this still sounds great).
This album seems to be out of print.

Download In Escaping Lakes
Buy In Escaping Lakes

Post script: heartfelt thanks to Will Thomas Long of Celer for featuring this review on the Celer blog!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sam Rivers - Inspiration

Here's another challenging yet accessible modern jazz album I've been enjoying lately. Sam Rivers recorded this album with his avant garde big band, the Rivbea Orchestra, in 1999. At the time, Rivers was pushing 80 (he's now 86 and still going strong!), but the music he scored for this album, and his solos throughout it, are as adventurous and energetic as those of any young vanguard on the scene today. This shouldn't really come as a surprise, since Sam Rivers is one of the most experienced players alive, having recorded numerous free jazz masterpieces since the mid 1960s with high profile artists like Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, and etc.

Inspiration features daunting big band arrangements that alternate between extremely carefully written phrases and far-out improvised solos. Often the band really swings, but in a sort of bizarre disjointed way; I'm reminded of the experimental big band works of Mingus from albums like The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady and Let My Children Hear Music, but the playing on Inspiration is typically a lot less tuneful, and much more abstract, than those. Actually, the album is often quite tuneful and even downright beautiful (hear "Beatrice" and "Solace"), but it speaks a particular jazz dialect that's a little strange to the ears at first. The forms of the pieces elude my comprehension even after multiple listens; new ways of hearing the parts fit together continue to reveal themselves, and the range of expression achieved through the variation of band textures is amazing. Some of the tracks are very dissonant and fierce, which is to be expected given Rivers' discography full of pretty out there records, but the music on Inspiration is generally as accessible as, say, Contours (Blue Note 1965), a classic free jazz staple.

Besides Sam Rivers I'm not familiar with any of the players on this album, but they're all more than up to par to work with the master. There are too many cool trombone, trumpet and sax solos to count, and the rhythm section (consisting only of drums and bass) stays deep in the pocket from start to finish. There are also appearances from a flute (played by Rivers) and an electric guitar. Very exciting, expressive, cerebral, vigorous music. Residents of Orlando, FL are fortunate to have regular opportunities to see modern jazz's most accomplished octogenarian perform with this group and others.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Vijay Iyer Trio - Historicity

This is the first album I've heard by the amazing piano improviser Vijay Iyer (b. 1971), and also his most recently released. There seems to be a global, cross-genre trend going on with musicians fervently blazing trails toward the future of music, pushing genres further and further, exploring new territory - and this new release certainly displays this action in jazz. Somewhat interesting, then, that it's called Historicity -
"Historicity in philosophy is the underlying concept of history, or the intersection of teleology (the concept and study of progress and purpose) temporality (the concept of time) and historiography (semiotics and history of history). Varying conceptualizations of historicity emphasize linear progress or the repetition or modulation of past events." (Wikipedia)
Now, I'm not sure what all of that means, or exactly what Iyer is trying to say titling his album that, but I'm guessing it has something to do with the grand and vast tradition of jazz innovators before him, and the synthesis of their influences on his own playing, and how he has became a part of that tradition by cooking up something truly new in the process...or....

Okay, enough philosophical rambling. Here we have an album of three startlingly virtuosic and intelligent improvisers going crazy. The first album that springs to mind to compare this to is Gently Disturbed by the Avishai Cohen Trio, but their similarities are on the superficial side. Both feature piano trios in which all three players take on an equally important and expressive role. Both feature insane technicality, especially with rhythm, and both display near-constant improvisational genius and sensitive group interplay. But Gently Disturbed has Israeli melodies at its core, so the songs tend to have an epic and emotionally moving (sometimes sentimental) feel, and a deep sense of tradition. (By the way, Gently Disturbed is one of my very favorite albums on this blog).

Historicity as I hear it is all about modernity, intellectual muscle and sheer surprise. Vijay Iyer brings to mind acknowledged master improvisers like Keith Jarrett, Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, but somehow manages to sound like none of them. He is some sort of relentless idea-machine; passage by passage his lines are constantly sliding into new contours and rhythmic patterns, expanding and contracting time, exploring every inch of the space conjured by the given piece. If heard totally on its own, I'm not sure all the piano music on Historicity could make sense, but Stephan Crump (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums) are the sort of players with that seemingly telepathic gift, who can not only keep up with Iyer, but reveal his abstract stream's unmistakable structure and form.

There are four Iyer originals here, and a number of intriguing covers, including Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack" (check out Hill's great Blue Note album of the same name), Bernstein's "Somewhere" from West Side Story, Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother", and an awesome, hard rollicking rendition of "Galang" by M.I.A. (say what?? - yes!). All the covers are executed with total originality and wit, and some of them are very funky.

From what I've read, Iyer's previous albums have been fusions of jazz and world music. I'm interested to hear him in that context, but he sounds beyond amazing in this one, and I hope he continues to explore this kind of edgy, super creative modern jazz on future releases.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hypnotic Underground Beat Mix - 2.9.10

So, I have this bi-weekly college radio program on which I play whatever happens to be in my ears at the moment. Sometimes I do genre themed playlists, and the other night I put together a beat mix I'm particularly pleased with. Thought I would share it with the's the tracklist:

Gemmy - "Rainbow Rd"
Jackhigh - "Aviation"
1000names - "Ice is the Silent Language"
Nosaj Thing - "3rd Complex"
Flying Lotus - "Tea Leaf Dancers"
Nujabes - "Sea of Cloud"
Ras G - "Yea..."
Pete Rock - "Play Dis Only At Night"
Depakote - "Quarter Milk"
Samiyam - "It's Important"
Onra - "War"
Dr. Who Dat? - "Stop Calling Me"
Teebs - "Untitled" (9th track from Teebs 09)
AFTA-1 - "The Facts"
MF Doom - "Secret Herbs and Spices Beat 5"
Mike Slott featuring Muhsinah - "Deux Three"
Tranquil - "Payroll (Paul White's Clean Dub)"
Gold Panda - "Fifth Ave"
J Dilla - "Oh Oh"
The Gaslamp Killer - "Track 1" from Akuma no Chi Ga Odoru
~ 60 minutes

Fades and arrangements were done in Live 8. No DJ speak on this, just the music. A couple of the tracks are really brief, too brief for how dope they are, so I extended them a bit for the mix. Hope you enjoy! (I just love hearing about it when you do).


Oh and happy Valentine's Day readers! As AFTA-1 sez, Love is real...

Monday, February 1, 2010


Samiyam is Sam Baker, lifelong resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan (not Detroit!) until the City of Angels claimed him in 2008 in a coup that solidified LA's status as the world's nexus for contorted future-funk mutations. We have MySpace to thank for this - it was through that site that Flying Lotus found Samiyam and took him under his proverbial wing. Now the two are close as kin, with FlyLo even referring to Sam as his little brother in a video online. Somewhere in an unseen zone of Los Angeles, they make unbelievably crazy beats as FLYamSAM and ignite a lot of resinous plant material - mostly the latter.

Unfortunately FLYamSAM's debut, the Precious Cargo EP, hasn't seen the light of day yet. Look out for it on Brainfeeder in the near future. Meanwhile, Samiyam has three great solo releases under his belt. Rap Beats Vol. 1 is his full length debut from 2008, an instrumental beat collection with 23 tracks, all under 2 minutes.

The album was self-released, and each copy has a personal message or doodle scribbled on it. If you're a fan of Madlib, J Dilla, and video games circa 1990, and if you happen to have a short attention span, you will probably love this. On the other hand, some listeners might find it too ADD. They should check out the EPs Return (2008) and Man vs. Machine (2009), released more recently and featuring more developed tunes.

Among the numerous groundbreaking beat makers on the scene in LA at the moment, Samiyam delivers a sound with distinctly more nostalgia and humor built into it, which makes him one of the most enjoyable to listen to.

Samiyam on MySpace

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Esa-Pekka Salonen - Helix, Piano Concerto, & Dichotomie

"I think of myself basically as a composer," Esa-Pekka Salonen has often been heard to say, "with a little conducting on the side to help pay the bills." Despite the charming modesty of these words, the more remarkable fact is the actual phenomenon of Salonen today - not merely another of those composers who can manage a little conducting if called upon, not merely a conductor with a couple of symphonies in a secret portfolio, but a master at the top of both professions. Here, on this disc, is further proof. (Alan Rich)
Taken from the liner notes to the album, this excerpt nicely summarizes the man who has been the most important champion for new music in Los Angeles for the last 25 years. Under his lead the L.A. Phil has performed world premieres of works by Arvo Pärt, John Adams, John Corigliano, and many others, as well as important pieces by Ligeti, Stravinsky, Bartok, and scores of other adventurous composers. As of the time of writing, Salonen is on hiatus from conducting to spend more time composing, a move that, despite his great talent for conducting, shouldn't make anybody unhappy, because his music is terrific.

This album has recordings of three recent works, Helix (2005) for orchestra, a three-movement piano concerto (2007), and Dichotomie (2000) for solo piano. The recording of the piano concerto, with pianist Yefim Bronfman, is of the piece's world premier performance. The first two pieces are both extremely lively and full of color, utilizing every resource of the orchestra to consistently creative and emotive results. Helix follows a predetermined and mathematically informed structure, that of a spiral wrapping around a cone. The piece, working in a mood reminiscent of certain bits from Stravinsky's La Sacre du Printemps, steadily builds in tempo and dynamics for nine minutes until it reaches its climactic breaking point - the tip of the cone. Salonen's first piano concerto, on the other hand, has a much more organic (and hence difficult to describe) form. As the liner notes put it,
"The music gathers strength as piano and orchestra engage in a variation of the opening slow music. Low woodwinds carry on in an interlude, 'the elegance of very large animals' (Salonen). The variety of orchestral events is breathtaking; a duet for piano and viola, a fast orchestra answer to that duet, a grand romantic sweep accompanied by arpeggios in the strings. Then comes a new sound: a solo saxophone in a haunting, slow melody, a reminder that one of Salonen's great early works was a concerto for that instrument. It is joined now by the piano and by the strange, otherworldly whistle of three piccolos. The first movement ends."
The second two movements, equally epic and adventurous, bring the concerto to a hefty 33 minutes in length. This is one to sit down and listen to when you know you have the time to appreciate it.

The final piece on the album is Dichotomie for solo piano, a piece with a somewhat minimalist/austere character but packing a lot of ferocity. Divided into two sections, Mecanisme and Organisme, the work is almost 20 minutes of constantly streaming notes whose intensity rises and falls in slow waves, demanding amazing virtuosity from Yefim Bronfman.

In 2009 Salonen completed a violin concerto, and he plans to soon return to conduct the L.A. Philharmonic during part of its 2010-11 season.* Very good news for lovers of contemporary concert music in L.A.