In 2007, Robert Raths founded Erased Tapes Records on a platform focused on releasing avant-garde and experimental electronic music. Originally based out of London, the label has expanded and now has additional offices in Los Angeles and Berlin.
You look on stage to see a piano, bass, and drums and one might immediately expect the classic sound of your traditional jazz piano trio. When Dawn of Midi takes the stage this instrumentation is flipped on its head completely shattering expectations and pushing the definition of jazz. The trio pushes the sound so far that the freedom and fluidity typically associated with jazz music is completely restricted with robotic precision and incredible sequencing of varying rhythmic permutations flowing through the three musicians.
Dysnomia is the group’s second album and garnered great praise after it’s release in 2015. It's just under four-years later and every play through this album feels fresh and gripping. In order to fully appreciate the meticulous planning and composition that went into this project you need to carve out 46-minutes devoted to following the complex and hypnotizing journey through the entirety of this album.
The album has such a distinct pulse throughout, yet it is almost impossible to ever know where the downbeat of each measure passes. The looping in each instrument often subtlety shifts dramatically changing the pulse and underlying time feel.
Opening with “Io,” the bass creeps into the picture followed closely by the piano’s muted strings. While only a trio, the group finds ways to push the limits of their sound. Throughout the entirety of the project each instrument it can be heard as a drum. For the bass and piano to be used melodically is a rarity. “Io” morphs into a complex rhythmic cocktail that gives a feeling of heavy swing near its completion by shifting accents among the given loops.
While each track is a cohesive and complete thought, the album plays as one long seamless journey. It is an international journey–while based in Brooklyn currently, the trio with members whose origins are Pakistan (Qasim Naqvi, drums), India (Aakaash Israni, Bass), Morocco (Amino Belyamani, piano). The heavy utilization of polyrhythmic ideas feels as though it potentially stems from this cultural make up.
From “Io” the band maneuvers through four more tracks before “Ymir.” The beginning of this, the sixth track on the project, is the end of a first act. The band has gradually made their way to one of the more simple rhythms and certainly some of the most thin sounds thus far. The first 20-seconds of “Ymir are a deep breath in before a a new theme emerges introduced with ringing piano harmonics and an arpeggiated bass line. The theme of the high harmonic seems to carry through until we are met with a familiar deep, low, and wide piano attack that calls back to the opening moments of the album.
Dysnomia is unlike anything I have ever heard. The band is currently on a hiatus as the trio all pursue individual projects. The hiatus is on the heels of a 4-year span touring with this album and, from what I have read, the album can only hope to mimic what the live experience with Dawn of Midi is like.
I first encountered this album right after its re-release on Erased Tapes back in the winter of 2017, but took it for a brand new release. It wasn’t until I dug deeper into the history of the ensemble that I learned of their leader, Simon Jeffes and co-founder Helen Liebmann and this orchestra that toured and recorded extensively between 1972 and 1997. I was all the more intrigued as their sound, even in 2017, seemed fresh and beautiful in a uniquely simple form.
The concept for PCO came to Jeffes in a hallucination caused by food poisoning in France in 1972. A poem came from this hallucination with a message of embracing the quality of randomness in our lives. He translated this message as one of acceptance, and carried this message as the driving force of PCO.
Jeffes, a classically trained guitarist, composer, and arranger, saw similarities in the limitations that came with the classical music and rock genre tags but admired the freedom within the folk music idiom. Embracing a message of randomness and acceptance, the sound of PCO is often hard to label. Within their albums, certainly within Union Café, a laundry list of influences, cultures, and genres are explored. Most often this exploration is heard within the context of a minimalist and folk aesthetic.
Union Café was the avant-pop band’s final of five full-length studio releases before Jeffes death in 1997. “Scherzo And Trio” opens the album sounding like a boogie-woogie tune with an added layer of grit. Harmonically this open slides in and out of dissonance without loosing its “chug-a-chug-a” push.
“Nothing Really Blue” is one of the more tantalizing tunes on the album. Opening with pizzicato strings and piano, a soft vamp begins to grow. A melody is sounded from the piano finding a way to sound like a blues riff, pop song, and spiritual all melded into a single phrase. The soft energy manages to keep your attention for all five-minutes of the tune hinting at a crescendo at times, but remaining comfortably in a somewhat reserved pocket.
In “Organum” the presence of folk roots is strong with a clear influence of irish jig tradition. There is a nostalgic tint to the track that I attribute to the sort of neo-renaissance-sounding accompaniment to the melody. It is a polished take on an old-fashioned sound heightening the sense of timelessness that seems to come with every release from PCO.
The spirit of this phenomenal band is carried on with Arthur Jeffes, the son of the late PCO founder. Arthur was the catalyst behind the rerelease of Union Café viewing this final release as PCO’s “least exposed” album due to, perhaps, poor timing. At the time it’s original release it was only availbe on CD–the digital marketplace for music was not in-place and the vinyl renaissance was still some years from kicking in. Erased Tapes helped to spark a renewed love of this important collection of musicians from the latter half of the 20th-century. With help of Arthur Jeffes, the polished, eclectic, and unassuming genius of Penguin Café Orchestra remains strong today.
Originally published in On Queue December Pt. 1, 2018
It is closing in on its 1-year anniversary, but the rich combination of organic and electronic that takes the reigns of Nils Frahm’s first major release since 2015 continues to fascinate my ear with the incredible proficiency in both production and minimalist composition that Frahm brings to the table.
The quality of recorded sound is the driving interest for Nils Frahm and has been since his very early introduction to music. His father was a photographer designing record covers while Frahm was immersing himself in the music of classical and contemporary composers. This duality that tugged on him for his early development as a musician shaped his unconventional approach to the piano sound which features an eccentric combination of classical and electronic music.
After his 2015 release, Solo, Frahm embarked on a mission to create a studio room from his dreams. The location was in the Funkhaus, a well known 1950s-era recording complex that sat in East Berlin. For two years he outfitted this with the gear that was most important to his sound–an arsenal of pianos, synthesizers, strings, percussion, and even down to a custom bult mixing desk. Funkhaus became a place where Frahm’s interest with the quality of sound could blossom through the various natural reverb chambers and vintage gear available to him.
The result was All Melody. While it sits in one’s ear with a somber tone, there is never an overwhelming sadness felt. The rhythmic energy in synths and voices heard from one track to the next keeps the energy moving forward. Despite the seemingly disparate timbres for the main voices in the project, All Melody is a structurally sound and cohesive body of work.
The most killer track to my ear is “A Place.” For me, this represents the most effective and musical use of delay I have ever heard and I have a hard time believing it will be dethroned anytime soon. When played through a pair of nice monitors or headphones, the incredible sonic architecture is put into full perspective. The pulse of the track is an articulate synth chord that is panned right of center. As this chord progression continues the layers of delay grow to populate the rest of the sonic field in a rhythmic and meticulously charted manner. Vocal textures join the rounded tone of the synth as well as a harmonized and syncopated flute melody.
“My Friend the Forrest” recalls back to the impressive catalogue of solo piano works Frahm has released in his career. The piano, muted and surrounded by a subtle but expansive blanket of reverb, speaks with the voice of both the stings and the hammers and levers. It is a texture that gives a new and warm life to the piano. Melodically, this track is oozing with soul and a bluesy riff that repeats throughout the song.
The beauty of this album is in the fine details. Frahm knows how to used recording technology and the mechanics of his instruments to his advantage making somewhat simple musical ideas come to life with intense emotion and detail. Unrelenting exploration of space and texture have lead to this beautifully ambitious release that has aged well this year.
Stones Throw Records was started in 1996 by Chris Manak (known to many as Peanut Butter Wolf) in honor of his late friend and collaborator, Charizma. It was the peak of the turntablism era when founded and since then Stones Throw has stayed true to their roots in hip hop and strong vinyl releases, however the label has grown to have one of the most talented and eclectic rosters of any label today. While some non-hip hop releases started to pop up in 1999, the breadth of the label began to grow quickly after the death of legendary producer and Stones Throw signee, J Dilla. Manak credits Dilla for introducing him to some of the new directions and genres that have began to get signed to the label.
The label is continuing to grow and introducing the world to some of the most unique and innovative acts today. From its humble beginnings, Stones Throw has become of one of the most important and respected labels in the industry.
The album opens with oscillating string chords immediately hypnotizing the listener. We are effortlessly pulled in by the spell of this Brooklyn native.
Garzón-Montano was raised in a family with French-Colombian heritage and with strong musical roots. His mother a member of Philip Glass’ ensemble, he was encouraged from an early age to find his instrumental voice. Starting with violin, Garzón-Montano grew to learn drums, guitar, keyboards, and an array of other instruments while studying at Laguardia High School for the performing arts.
Jardín is packed with colorful arrangements that are as diverse in their sonic make up as the cultural and artistic makeup of Garzón-Montano’s upbringing. The delicate and lush opening statement of “Trial” leads into the lead single of the album, “Sour Mango.” The combination of lyrical and harmonic complexity creates intriguing timbres that propel, not only this track, but the entire album forward.
Thick and blocky vocal harmonies meander effortlessly throughout the album. “Long Ears” features background vocal runs that flow in front of the busy and percussive groove ending in an expressive outro with a choir of vocal layers coming from Garzón-Montano. “Crawl” and “My Balloon” feature two of my favorite bass grooves on the album. Both syncopated groves support stylistically disparate tracks– “Crawl” a danceable and more traditional neo-soul song and “My Balloon” a sonically explorative experience grounded in a hip hop driven feel.
It is rare when such a wide range of influences and experimentation can come together so cleanly to create a cohesive final product. The common thread is the distinctive vocals and vocal mixing that sweetens these tracks that carry a deeper meaning often relating to the topic of isolation.
In an interview with HNHH in 2017, Garzón-Montano says, “I wanted to make music that would remind people how beautiful life is – how delicate their hearts are. A Garden is full of life, and growth, and beauty. I named the album Jardín hoping for it to create a space for healing when people put it on. I’ve always wanted to make music that is healing, comforting, and funky.” Just as if you were to look at a vibrant flower bed, the variety of color and presence of fragile, but beautiful life shines through.
The legend of Quasimoto began in the year 2000 with the release of The Unseen. The mind behind this now legendary series of albums is none other than producing legend and Stones Throw stalwart, Madlib.
It is said that the producer decided to rap over some of his own beats one day, but was not satisfied with the sound of his voice. He took his beats, slowed them down, rapped slowly, and then sped them back up to speed producing the distinctive high pitched voice of this notorious alter ego often referred to as “Lord Quas.” The album title for the debut release in 2000 was a reference to the fact that the MC was meant to be invisible. Soon, however, an animated character drawn by Madlib and Jeff Jank became the infamous face of this character.
Over a span of 13-years, three Quasimoto albums were released with the latest release, Yessir, Whatever, coming in 2013. The album serves as a compilation of songs that were released on rare and out-of-print vinyl and produced throughout roughly a 12-year-period. The character of Lord Quas is a menacing one meant to represent a bombastic and larger-than-life gangster. Violence and drugs are frequent topics in Lord Quas’ verses even though their references are sometimes thought to be a parody.
A characteristic element of all Quasimoto releases is the back-and-forth between the high pitched voice of Quas and Madlib’s true voice. On “Broad Factor,” the opening track of Yessir, Whatever, we hear this interchange with Quas on the verses and Madlib on the hook. Originally released in 2004, this track is a cover of “Nod Factor” by Mad Skillz but sexualized in only the way Lord Quas could get away with. Biz Markie’s “Pickin’ Boogers” and Showbiz & AG’s “Fat Pockets” were also graced with this Lord Quas treatment on earlier releases.
The psychedelic and magic mushroom infused journey through the mind of Quasimoto with tracks like “The Front,” where Madlib calls out those who look for shortcuts and try to weasel their way into his circle for personal gain. He’s been paying his dues and mastering his craft for years only to be met with snakes in the game.
“Planned Attack” gained the most traction on the album as the lead single. Lord Quas lays down the facts on how he and Madlib are the hottest duo on the scene putting other MC’s careers in danger. The track serves almost as a “who’s who” through many different era’s of hip hop with samples from names such as Busta Rhymes, Jeru the Damaja, Bran Nubian, and Big Daddy Kane.
The legend of the elusive Lord Quas remains intact to this day as fans and followers of the underground hip-hop scene wait patience for the MC's next coveted appearance.
[Originally published in On Queue October Pt. 1]
If you are ever given the opportunity to see a Peanut Butter Wolf live DJ set, don’t hesitate and immediately get tickets. There are few people who have the ability to turn DJing, often viewed as a passive action with little skill other than buttons needed, into an eclectic display of music history and musicality. Once I saw Peanut Butter Wolf live, I went home and drove into any recorded set I could possibly find. I stumbled across one done for Bandcamp Weekly earlier this year. The set featured many new and old gems signed to Stones Throw Records including a single from a then upcoming release by Jerry Paper. October 12th was a long awaited release day for me and Like a Baby did not disappoint.
Born Lucas Nathan, Jerry Paper is based in LA and draws on his experience moving from New York city to the West Coast while exploring themes of “the endless human cycle of desire and satisfaction.” The laid back and low volume album bristling with wavy synthesizers and reverb soaked vocals is co-produced by Matty Tavares, a member of BADBADNOTGOOD. Those familiar with the jazz fusion and free improvisational style of this band and Tavares voice on keys and synths will feel right at home.
There is an undeniable dreamy timbre through the entire album. It is a pleasant blend of psychedelic rock meeting wistful synth textures of electronic music. For lovers of lo-fi, there is more than enough to enjoy. The album begins as though it is powering on. “Your Cocoon” (the single featured in Peanut Butter Wolf’s set) climbs up to speed into a wash of funky drums and plucky guitar accompaniments.
“A Moment” has an undeniable bossa nova flavor to it made clear through the driving brushes on drums and the silky background vocals. “My God,” another single from the project, is a melancholy meditation on the true importance of financial worth. Many of the narratives sung through the album are sometimes hard to decipher due to the unique and thick processing done to Jerry Paper’s deep vocals. This does nothing to take away from the album and adds a mystique that compliments the sound.
I feel like there is a definite embrace of what may be seen as “cheesy.” It is a quirky sound, but it is so refined and self-aware that it sets itself apart in its own category. The album is as pleasing to listen to as it is filled with deep commentary on the reality of our surroundings allowing the listener to sit back and relax or interact in a more thought provoking manner. It is a soft-rock masterpiece that has been well worth the wait.