I feel like I’ve heard Makaya McCraven’s name at least once a week for this entire calendar year, and rightfully so. It has been a busy year for the Chicago based drummer and producer.
Having gone to school in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and being somewhat tuned in to the jazz scene there, the name of this extraordinarily original drummer was constantly being brought up. McCraven, while born in France, was raised in the Pioneer Valley where he was quickly noticed and mentored by some of the geniuses that reside in and around the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The community included the likes of Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, and Yusef Lateef.
It feels like a common story these days for jazz musicians and students of his generation and younger to have a love for jazz along with an obsession for hip hop and great MCs and producers. McCraven was no different. Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Nas, and Biggie were frequently in McCraven’s ears as he was growing up. Perhaps it is a common listening pallet for those of his generation, but there are few that have been able to harness the characteristics of this genre crossover with such mastery as McCraven has done time and time again.
Where We Come From grew from a residency in London during October of 2017 and is a true testament to his musical roots. McCraven was joined on stage at London’s Total Refreshment Centre by Theon Cross (tuba), Joe Armon-Jones (keys), Nubya Garcia (saxophone), Kamaal Williams (keys) and Soweto Kinch (saxophone and voice). Two days of live shows were recorded and brought to be mixed and mastered for another two days in London. On the fifth and final day was “Fresh Roasted.” This event brought together some of London’s most prolific producers for a live beat-making and remixing showcase. The stems from the earlier performances were chopped up on stage and put on the album contributing to its certain mixtape feel.
The recordings were originally meant to be bonus material for McCraven’s second 2018 release, Universal Beings. Listening through to the result of this 5-day musical escapade, however, it becomes apparent how cutting any of the material from these London sessions would be nearly impossible.
McCraven is known for his jam session style of performing–he and the other musicians improvise the entire show resulting in mostly loop based material. It is a format that places the musicians at a heightened level of awareness that can be felt in any of his projects, and especially this one. The spirit of the live performance is preserved in this record. The energy level is almost overflowing from the first note and the audience voices their admiration for the group.
It is an extremely innovative record, sure, but with the musical background McCraven comes from it feels like this project has been living inside him for years. Where We Come From is a brilliant displayed of everything that is crucial to the musical identity of Makaya McCraven.
It spans only three medium-length tracks, but packs an emotional knockout punch.
Stuart Howard, known as Lapalux to most, was signed to electronic music juggernaut Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, in 2010 after a simple cold email to the producer and founder. Since then, a steady stream of EPs and remixes have been released with widespread praise for the precision and attention to detail Lapalux brings to the table.
The concept for this limited edition cassette revolves around loops. Lapalux likens the process of making a record to the cycle of life. He states making a record is “a never ending cycle and a slowly developing loop, much akin to the feeling of what it is to be alive, to die, and the afterlife.” The movements of this project fit this form: ABOVE represents life, BETWEEN represents death, and BELOW represents the afterlife.
A 4-track tape record is the instrument of choice. Lapalux has established a voice that is a masterful blend of analog and digital traditions. The whole project was recorded live and in one take with Lapalux manning the fader controls of the tape recorder. The tape contained loops of short music ideas he had recorded and then played back at varying speeds. The result is an intensely rich and introspective collection of ambient tracks.
“ABOVE” evolve the most of the three tracks–where we begin is far darker than where we end. In many ways this makes sense to me as from Lapalux’s perspective, or for anyone reading this post’s perspective for that matter, life is the the process where progression can be traced. We have no sense of “reality” for the other processes portrayed in this project.
The opening track begins with a single sound mimicking a tolling bell. It is gritty, dissonant, and dark, painting a grim picture of life from the early moments of the track. Slowly a repeating three-note figure fades in and the bell melts into the background become engulfed by the wet reverb of this repeating figure. I hear something a little different every time I listen–sometimes this figure is being sung by a choir, sometimes it feels like like a guitar, sometimes all I can hear is the static that sits in the background and the crackling tape noises. This is the core of beauty in minimal music for me– it’s a simple pattern and takes so many forms and the shift between these forms is triggered by such the smallest and, what feels like, most insignificant events. By the time “ABOVE” fades out, the opening bells have given way to a bright landscape of many open intervals and major sonorities.
In the final thirty-seconds, however, the faint sound of the bells grows once more leading into “BETWEEN” or the representation of death. This bell becomes analogous to a heartbeat as it opens with force and strength, but struggles to remain heard and beating at the end of its life.
“BETWEEN,” as one might predict, is rather dark. The sound of waves that have been pitched down create a sinister opening and are joined by a dark bass drone. A similar ambiguous choir-like instrument sets a new pattern of four notes that continue through the track. In perhaps an effort to simulate a rising towards heaven, sounds are added from the bottom up. The last layer to be populated is a shrill series of squeaks that grow in number and intensity during the last couple minutes of the track. As the track fades out the sound of waves remain. Somehow they have also risen now being played at a truer pitch painting a calm and peaceful scene to end this representation of death.
In my eyes, “BELOW” perfectly captures the uncertainty of the afterlife. The duration of this third and final track transforms these two locations into sonic modes, keeping one foot in each in a careful balancing act. It is a meditative uncertainty that seamlessly transitions between a muddied darkness and a warming glow. A loop of two synth chord stabs fades in with a trail of reverb following each attack. The initial attack is highlighted by a deep harmony, but what resonates are shimmering harmonics–immediately heaven and hell are presented as separate but linked modes competing for our attention.
As of late I have been fascinated by records that treat the mix or sound design as an instrument on a record. The quality of sound, mic placement, recording medium–the attention to these aspects of recorded and electronic music can sometimes make or break the musical content. Lapalux has taken an old and forgotten (to most) recording device building an album whose identity is directly connected to this piece of equipment. A profound and meaningful concept is combined with genius production yielding a powerful, while brief, spiritual window.
Son Lux has left me speechless time and time again. The Son Lux project consists of Rafiq Bhatia, Ian Chang, and Ryan Lott. Lott, a composer from Los Angeles, started the group and with the help of Bhatia (guitar) and Chang (drums), the group has forged a captivating sound blending electronica and rock beautifully.
In February of 2018, the group released their sixth full-length album, Brighter Wounds. A masterpiece in itself, the group treated this project as they have their other releases. This structure includes an intricate series of remixes and reworked versions of track and small motifs from their full-length releases.
The band writes, “Brighter Wounds is at the center of a body of work, where songs often appear in different iterations. This has been a trademark of the Son Lux project from the start to investigate songs from each album from multiple angles and present the results.” Yesterday’s Wake is the continuation of this investigation.
The EP consists of two reworks (All Directions II and All Directions III) as well as two brand new songs that are ripe with “DNA” from the album.
All Directions II builds slowly as a meditation on a single string melody. The texture grows and brightens as the short opening track evolves. It is an orchestral opening that borrows from the bands earlier work such as “No Crimes.”
“Delivery” is the first new full song on the EP and it is mesmerizing. A beautiful mix of electronic and acoustic instruments blends together creating a hypnotizing descending line. Tonally and metrically it is hard to place the tune from the beginning. Instead, Lott’s vocals lead us to a heavy drop of frantic and punchy drums laced with driving bass lines and synths. The dry and crisp mix on Lott’s vocals stands in the foreground of this maximalist texture.
“All Directions III” takes the same string melody from the opening of the EP and recontextualizes it. Slightly faster with a noticeably more jagged accompaniment, this rework feels like and interlude leading into the centerpiece and title track of the EP.
The fourth and final track “Yesterday’s Wake” is dripping with gospel influence. An organ is the main character from the beginning remaining steady with the chord progression and a flurry of distant drums and strings play in the periphery. Lott sings with a much more somber and reserved delivery–his words quiver with emotion as the final verse comes to a close.
Needless to say, if you are unfamiliar with Son Lux’s earlier work, start from the beginning. What makes this group so special to me is the way you can trace the progress and evolution of their sound through their structure of remixes and reworks. While it stands alone as a brilliant EP, its full brilliance is reviled when you are able to recognize the musical ideas that return from projects past to create this grand work of art.