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.
Number eight. I remember being hipped to Vulfpeck in Sweetwaters Café in 2012 and since then time has flown by. It has been an extremely sonically rewarding experience to follow this band that has done so much for the community that I grew up in. They really have inspired a community and brought a new energy to the concept of the modern funk band. With their eighth studio release I feel a bit of nostalgic energy back towards the early days of the band with the four core members, especially Theo Katzman, having a more pronounced presence compared to some of their more recent releases.
The first four songs feature the vocal talents of Theo Katzman and cover the bases in terms of your “pop anthem subgenres:” we open with a quasi gospel rock feel in “Half of the Way,” an almost disco joint with “Darwin Derby,” a singer-songwriter vibe with “Lonely Town,” and a ballad with “Love is a Beautiful Thing.” This fourth track was originally featured on Katzman’s latest solo project, Heartbreak Hits.
The structure of Vulfpeck seems too simple to be so out of the ordinary. The band notably splits royalties evenly among all parties on original tunes and then has a more traditional payment structure for covers. Covers have become a staple of the ongoing Vulf project in both the album and live show setting. The band has often covered many songs on solo projects of Katzman and frequent collaborator, Joey Dosik.
There is an effortless sense of community that comes from this practice that is infectious when listening through headphones or live. The familiarity the musicians have with each other carries over into the audience filling the room with positive and comedic energy. Watching the progression of the band has meant seeing this energy skyrocket to an all-time high with this latest release.
The second half of the album feels like a window back into the early catalogue of Vulf. Basic band setups with drums, keys, and bass dominate this second half with whimsical melodies over heavy bass lines throughout. “Soft Parade” has a polyrhythmic, three-against-four feel in the bass that gives it some nastiness as I envision a carousel go ‘round and ‘round.
“Lost My Treble Long Ago” is the Joe Dart feature of the eighth studio release. Speed, agility, and precision–Dart is at his finniest on this heavy funk tune. “Disco Ulysses (Instrumental)” is perhaps a sneak peak at what is to come in 2019. As we saw with numbers like “My First Car” and “Christmas In LA,” Vulfpeck likes to draw out the life of a tune by releasing the instrumental before the vocal version. Both versions in all the cases of this strategy can stand alone as hits showing the talent level of the musicians associated with Vulf.
I’m absolutely a fanboy of this band. Driving way out of my way or planning trips to see this band or its members perform an unnecessary number of times is something I’m guilty of. But it is the energy I was talking about that keeps me coming back. When you are in a room with them or they are in your headphones you have no choice but to smile and nod your head. The music, the personalities, the cult following–Vulfpeck is the real deal and still feel as fresh and new as ever.
A video that seems to always show up on my Facebook feed and suggested videos on YouTube is one by Vox called “How J Dilla humanized his MPC3000.” It must be my history on the internet that is feeding the algorithms, but I literally see this video 5-10 times a week on my feeds and, I’ll admit, I have a hard time not watching it every time it comes up.
The basic premise of the video is explaining how J Dilla’s main compositional tool, the MPC3000, shaped his sound and a generation of music to follow. One of the collaborators and producers that worked heavily with Dilla during this time was Madlib, the producer behind the cult classic Madvillainy record along with MC, MF Doom.
Released in early November of 2018, Madvillain Vol. 1 takes the idea of humanizing this style of production to an extreme level. Abstract Orchestra is a Hip-Hop Big Band from the United Kingdom that is steadily building a loyal and supportive fanbase. The group is led by saxophonist, Rob Mitchell and is dedicated to bringing a new energy to some of the most storied music in hip-hop’s canon.
This album comes on the heels of their summer 2017 release, Dilla, exploring the music of the legendary producer in the same manner they do with the music of this infamous duo. The group takes straight-ahead and modern arranging techniques and applies them to the loop-based music of Madvillain. The album begins with “Accordian,” an arrangement of one of the most popular tunes on the original album. It is a bouncy and bright take on a track that originally drags with a slumbering quality. A strong backbeat, swinging sax harmonies, and a muted trumpet solo add a jazz characteristic to the mix.
“Raid” has to be my favorite arrangement on the album. The opening sample features “Nardis” as played by the one and only, Bill Evans. After this opening statement, the magic of live ensemble looping kicks in. The ensemble bounces heavily in the pocket and with some incredible rhythmic accuracy. As the track wears on, the beautiful orchestration of the arrangement takes the foreground.
The lo-fi feeling that is so present throughout the entirety of the original project is lost with Abstract Orchestra’s interpretation. This is certainly not a negative. More than anything it is a reminder of the importance the technology Madlib used was to his signature sound. The power and precision that the musicians in this group play with deserves to be heard through the high quality and clarity of this mix.
As someone who is a sucker for quality big band arrangements, this album was an immediate purchase and addition to my collection. The somewhat sinister quality of the Madvillainy is kept, but with a new twinge of brightness and forward energy. Just as Dilla and Madlib humanized the technology behind their legendary sound, Abstract Orchestra is taking it another step further. Perhaps this step moves the music outside the immediate realm of hip-hop, but the swagger of their original source material is never out of site.