Lorn - Ask The Dust

I stumbled across Milwaukee producer Lorn’s sophomore album by accident while trailing through the ‘recommended artists’ section on Spotify. 
(Side thought: does anyone else already feel nostalgic for myspace’s heyday as one of the stand out ways of searching out new music on the web? Scrolling through bands and artists top friends was an easy, meandering and potentially endless way of discovering all kinds of fuzzy demo uploads, haphazard bedroom-DJ productions and more polished cuts from artists you were sure you should have heard of before by the time you finished listening. Or have I completely sugarcoated it because I was 16 at the time, in a band, and still a starry eyed NME-reading believer in THE POWER OF NEW MUSIC? I guess you can kind of replicate the experience with Bandcamp or Soundcloud – and to a lesser extent Spotify – but none of those seem quite as direct or personal as the experience on myspace was. But I do indeed digress…)

‘Ask The Dust’ marks the first release Lorn – real name Marcos Ortega – has put out for label Ninja Tune, having previously resided over on Brainfeeder. It’s doubtful he would have received any more artistic licence since joining Ninja Tune – not least due to the connections between the two labels – but it’s still hard to miss the sonic leaps in confidence and craftsmanship that are apparent from the first beat of ‘Ask The Dust’. Previous LP, 2010’s ‘Nothing Else’, while crisp, energetic and brimming with ideas, does play back as more generically tied down to the hip hop instrumentals/scratch beat scenes.

That being said, as ‘Ask The Dust’ opener ‘Mercy’ collapses into its rhythm it would be easy to imagine an of-the-moment-rapper like a Danny Brown or an El-P entering the fray to deliver some quirky spitfire bars. But as the beat festers, it’s clear that there’s something murkier - more subterranean – going on here. The beat alone, with it’s thrusting, insisting snares, demands far more attentive ears than were required on ‘Nothing Else’. And by the time the following track ‘Ghosst’ erupts, with its swaying and swirling bass lines, the notion of any need for an MC accompaniment has been cast to one side.

I’ve been listening to, and generally pursuing, more American rap than I ever have done recently. Part of the reason for this is it seems slightly difficult to ignore at the moment - and it we may just be in the midst of a minor golden age for hip-hop. And this is by no means only focused on the MCs and rappers. The notion, and appreciation, of the ‘instrumental’ feels really relevant at the moment: spurred on by the truly outstanding (and to my ears really quite beautiful) work of producers like Clams Casino (or just some of the straight up ridiculous production work by G.O.O.D Music’s Hit-Boy). But Lorn’s sound – coated in menace – in many ways transcends the charting of these trends, with its uncompromising desire to endlessly evolve and experiment. Lorn seems to sit on the fringes, and it appears that he rather likes it that way.

Some may sluggishly suggest that what he’s producing here is dubstep. That’s bound to be wide of the mark, although Lorn has spoken of the similarities between the emergence of the US scratch scene and the UK dubstep scene in the early noughties, mostly uniting the genres through experimentation in the 140 BPM range. Indeed to my ears, the metallic thrust of cuts like ‘Weigh Me Down’ and ‘Dead Dogs’ call to mind the ominous mood of South Londoners Vex’d on 2005’s ‘Degenerate’ LP.  Although that is not to suggest that Lorn is any way lazily imitating: the explosive ‘Weigh Me Down’, with its Marilyn Manson-esque vocals in the verses, straddles the worlds of metal and electronica (a cocktail of genres that I think is rarely carried out as successfully as it could be) in an ominous and refreshingly original manner. Perhaps put in less convoluted language, it just sounds plain nasty – for all the right reasons.

Course if this is dubstep in 2012, I’ll take it over Knife Party every time. If you best like your beats harrowing and haunting, your frequencies dark and dingy – it may not get much better than this in 2012. Preferably experienced in total, all-encompassing, and unforgiving darkness.

Danny Brown - 'Radio Song'

I like Danny Brown. I first heard him in completely non-extraordinary circumstances, with 'XXX' featuring in the top 20 of FACT's run down of their top albums of last year. His flow is as immediately recognisable as it is gloriously idiosyncratic. I find this really important with an MC: if the flow sounds like too much of a carbon-copy of someone else, then I switch off pretty quickly (Drake's nonchalant delivery seems to be a good example of one that has recently been picked up by countless lazy imitators). Sometimes it isn't so much what is being said but how it's being said: how it rolls off the tongue, and how much venom is charged in the delivery - and Danny's got buckets full of venom in his cannon. Something that really made 'XXX' stand out was Brown's chameleon-like ability to switch between tone, ranging from downright demented, high-as-fuck cuts like 'Blunt After Blunt', to strikingly candid and reflective moments like 'DNA'.

Nestled in amongst such entirely opposing tracks was 'Radio Song'. It's got the video treatment, which you can stream below. At only 2 and a bit minutes long it kind of passed me by listening to 'XXX' the first couple of times round, but coming back to it, it perfectly embodies Danny as the kind of "alternative", "outsider" rapper he's often labelled as. Observing the tendency for chart-hungry artists to churn out any old paint-by-numbers, flavour-of-the-month sound, Brown is in no mood to hold back, name-checking Wiz Khalifa: 'He made Black and Yellow, I'mma make it black and emo'. And Brown seems pretty certain of the outcome for such commodified artists: 'That's why these wack rappers, they never last long/Don't care about music, just radio songs'. Always nice when hip-hop has an agenda behind it.

Directed by: Alex/2tone

How good is Danny Brown's t-shirt collection? Amazingly, it seems some have already taken to the comments section on Youtube to suggest that this song represents Brown selling out... apparently irony continues to completely pass some individuals by. A radio friendly unit shifter if ever there was one.

‘CRITICAL BEATS #3– TRADITION AND INNOVATION’ @ Stratford Circus, London 24/02/12

So this week I made the short trip from Brighton to London to attend a talk on electronic music aesthetics at Stratford Circus, hosted by hipper-than-hip music magazine The Wire. Chaired by Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman, and a panel consisting of Simon ‘Retromania’ Reynolds, Joe Muggs and The Wire’s own Lisa Blanning, this was certainly an exciting, informative, but ever so slightly daunting experience for me. Although I’ve come across a small amount of lofty academic writing on contemporary music, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Adorno and Marxist concepts, and dizzying phrases like ‘generational polarization’ and ‘hyper-localization’, being bandied about in music discussion quite so casually before. So much for the break from my university studies, then.

At first I felt some creeping skepticism in relation to all of this – and I can’t help but think of how many artists would find such a studious, intellectually-stuffy approach fairly laughable. But having almost reached the end of my undergraduate experience, I do think it would be easy to suggest that serious study of contemporary music feels like a rather undernourished, untapped area in academia. Whereas film, television and media studies seem to have permeated modes of thought at most higher education institutions, the study of modern music in any meaningful sense seems to sit on the fringes, if at all (although Goodman's position at the University of East London does serve as a clear exception to this). In fact I do think that closely scrutinizing musical trends could at times be a more effective cultural tool for entering into discourses on sociological, aesthetic – and perhaps even political – trends, than might immediately be achieved through film and television studies. For instance, serious reflection on the changing face of dance music culture over the last twenty plus years – with all it’s complex links to taste, community and even criminality - would probably tell us far more about the changing face of modern Britain than say, insight into the semiotics of Eastenders, or studies in the shifts of focus for the Hollywood studio system might.

Lasting over two hours in length, the talk threw open countless modes and angles of thought for approaching dance music culture - neatly reflecting on what an expansive beast it seems to be in 2012. As you could probably anticipate on a talk partly interested in modes of tradition in electronic music, it didn’t take long for attention to shift to the good ole days. Joe Muggs quickly reminisced on dance music’s classless, raceless, MDMAzing golden (or crystal?) age; a rather romantic image of the early nineties as an era where sonic innovation was oozing out of all manner of soundsystems and bassbins – and feverishly beamed across the nation by the pirate stations – is conjured up. To be fair, although this is a rather obvious reference point it is a vital one, and served as a useful way of thinking about communication between the old and the new throughout the discussion. Muggs later made reference to how he sees dubstep’s ‘gnarly wobble’ as being infested with some of that 90s rave/jungle ‘craziness’. To me this seems to take some of the formal debates into wider contexts about how energy flows and shifts over time. The ‘wobble’ has undoubtedly been a definable textural innovation in electronic music over the last decade, but what Muggs seems to raise here is that the reaction of the raver – which can perhaps be boiled down to that overwhelming desire to lose all inhibition and go fucking mental at the point of the 'drop' – can be contextualized within the wider history of electronic music. Of course Reynold’s linear theory of the UK hardcore continuum, for which more can be read about here, is a really useful way of thinking about these transferences of energy, and served as another important critical undercurrent throughout the evening.

I’m not sure of how much this has been discussed elsewhere, but I thought Muggs raised a really interesting point about the lack of comparable ghettoisation in the UK compared to countries such as France and the USA. He sees this as leading to the multiracial, more ambiguously class conscious scenes that have emerged from the UK, stressing the lack of geographical divide between estates and affluent areas when contrasted, for instance, to the more rigid ghettoes of inner city America. This feels vital when thinking about grime – which to me has never seemed that interested in focusing on class or race divid - while still being very much aware of where it’s come from. I was also much more on the side of Muggs and Blanning who seemed quite quick to distance themselves from Reynolds suggestions that grime had in some way failed in its aims and is now in a period of retreat. For a start, to move away from reflections on the MCs, grime instrumentals still seem as important as ever. Blanning namechecked Teeza’s track ‘Bounce’ towards the end – I hadn't previously heard it and I’m glad she brought it up because it’s an absolute monster of an instrumental.

Of course it seemed inevitable that Zomby was going to get mentioned at some point and I think he ended up cropping up in discussion more than any other individual artist. I’ve got to confess I still have a tough time identifying what is quite so special about Zomby. As easily my favourite  Zomby cut had been ‘Natalia’s Song', I couldn’t help but have my opinion of him ever so slightly tarnished by all that hoo-har surrounding the origins of the track. But to step away from the sonic side of things, Blanning made a really interesting point about Zomby’s crazed, rampant Twitter activity attracting an audience that would perhaps have previously had little interest in him. Through this, Zomby, a figure shrouded in mystery, infamy and skunk smoke, perhaps with the three in equal measure, becomes an unavoidable character on the scene. With the trailblazing success of Skream & Benga’s lads-on-tour personas, and the inescapable rise of Skrillex – coupled with the downright terrifying declaration by Simon Cowell that ‘DJs are the new rockstars’ – it seems personality and individualism in dance music may be as important now as it has ever been.

Being far, far from an expert on the dance music universe, I also left with a host of unfamiliar names for me to go away and check out (I felt very out the loop whenever footwork jungle mixes got mentioned… so I’ve quickly amended that). It certainly made a change to Question Time for some panel-based viewing on a Thursday night, and was a refreshingly serious and measured reflection on the state of current electronic music. Still not quite sure how Adorno fits into all of it, but perhaps I’ll save that for another time.  

Burial - Kindred EP

In the myriad of flowery adjectives available to describe an artist, band or producer, along with ‘genius’, describing someone as being ‘peerless’ is not praise that should ever be dished out lightly, or without careful consideration. But after a couple of spins of Burial’s new EP ‘Kindred’, out now on Hyperdub Records, the delivery of that praise feels like a complete no-brainer.

For Burial aficionados the opening title track begins typically enough, as grainy needle scratches, thundery echoes and muffled vocals give way to a sharp, snap-crackle drumbeat. Then around the minute-and-a-half mark comes a juddering bassline to disturb the equilibrium. Unruly and machine-like, it feels like a distant subterranean cousin of the now culturally ingrained dubstep “wobble”; perhaps Burial is doing for the dubstep generation what he became renowned for with UK garage in the mid-noughties. As the drumbeat reenters (evidencing the closest you’re probably ever going to get to a ‘drop’ here) we sense a producer embracing a degree of aggression and murkiness not explored in earlier work. But as Kindred’s groove flows, Burial evidences one of his overarching strengths as a producer of electronic music – that being his remarkable ability to create and reflect intense emotion at the heart of his music. As the backbeat continues to shudder, reverberating vocals and soaring synths fall in and out of the mix, shifting between melancholia and menace with an almost bi-polar tendency. Around the ten-minute mark, this remarkable piece of music slowly relaxes its muscles, coming to a sombre, reflective close.

As ‘Loner’ kicks into gear it is clear that we are again in unchartered territory. Whereas Burial’s beats have tended to belong in a rain-soaked, paranoid reimagining of the drama of the night before, “Loner’s” crystalline, four-to-the-floor rhythm seems to originate on the dancefloor. As handclaps and a spiraling synth-line are thrown into the mix, we settle upon what is perhaps the closet to actual ‘dance’ music Burial has ever produced. And it’s top notch. Like ‘Kindred’, this also seems to have a form of coda, which stops short the upbeat mood as a high-pitched, echoing vocal line signals a tense, unnerving finish.

Ashtray Wasp is perhaps the most immediately familiar piece on the EP (and not just because it’s final section was played out on Hyperdub’s new Rinse FM show back in December). It does however feature ‘Kindred’ most emphatically embracing a sense of lyricism and melody. In fact you can almost discern something of a chorus here, as a shrouded voice laments of how ‘I used to belong’.

On a recent Guardian Music podcast, the panel discussed Adam Harper’s new book ‘Infinite Music’. Rather than viewing contemporary music as finding inspiration through backward glances, (fruitfully covered by Simon Reynolds in his book ‘Retromania’) Harper revels in the almost endless possibilities opened up for music-makers by 21st technology. Particular artists name-checked included Zomby, Actress and Burial – and while much of the more technical discussion of sound manipulation and reconstruction goes way over my head, on a basic level it makes perfect sense to think of Burial in such forward-thinking terms.

As first indicated by his incredible reworks of Massive Attack last year and further developed on ‘Kindred’, there is something of a breakdown in the solidity of individual “tracks”; in fact it feels more useful to describe the three pieces on ‘Kindred’ as soundscapes. Moving in an organic, free-flowing manner, with little regard for the textural confines of song, Burial journeys through a sonic meeting of discord and melody that constantly keeps the listener second-guessing. Listening to Burial on a dark, soggy night remains one of the most transcendent musical experiences I can ever recall having, and this progressive, mercurial EP evidences an artist making firm, confident strides in his musical development. We can only hope that the long awaited follow up to 2007’s ‘Untrue’ will be with us sooner rather than later.

Brainfeeder Label Sampler (and why freebies are cool)

It’s all starting to seem rather impossible to avoid now: THE INTERNET IS CHANGING!!

Alright, I’m probably doing a bit of tabloid-style scaremongering there. But with the dust only just settling on Megaupload’s dramatic demise, the news that BTJunkie have decided to shut up shop and take the money and run, opens the creeping likelihood that the world of torrenting will soon be under severe attack. I find my morals getting rather tangled in any attempt to get too outraged about all of this (although it’s a different story when it comes to SOPA/PIPA). But it does beg the question: what does the future hold for music and the internet?

One thing that would certainly be worth stopping and considering in some more detail is the impressive amount of free, legal music downloads available out there on the interwebs. I’m always impressed and surprised by the amount that can be directly downloaded on Soundcloud, which seems to be finally be taking up reign as a rightful successor to MySpace as an online hub for emerging artists to get tracks heard. And while most normal mortals don’t have the time in their busy lives to scour endless obscure music sites, the more obsessive among us will often find a plethora of mp3s, podcasts, mixtapes and more out there after some hard graft and investigation.

One such excellent free download was last week’s release of an album sampler for Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label – recent deserved winners of the ‘Label of the Year’ award at the Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards. Although mostly featuring work from the label’s back catalogue, what’s noticeable is that this works well as an album in it’s own right; it also perfectly evidences the rich diversity of sounds and textures Fly Lo has gathered at Brainfeeder. From the insistent, staccato beats of TOKiMONSTA, to the organic euphoria of Thundercat, to some blissed out bars from rapper Jeremiah Jae, the collection includes some excellent work from the label’s emerging artists. These tracks nestle alongside better-known names such as Martyn and The Gaslamp Killer. ‘Viper’ appears from Martyn’s 2011 album ‘Ghost People’, and it’s a menacing piece of electronica with sparse percussion and a gnarly, unforgiving synth line. The ‘Killer’s contribution is the meandering rhythms of ‘When I’m In Awe’, featuring Gonjasufi at his shamanic, spiky best.

Speaking of free stuff, if you’re yet to do it go and bag Dizzee Rascal’s Dirtee TV mixtape HERE, while it’s still floating around. It’s the freshest, edgiest work he’s done in ages, and a strong reminder of why he remains grime’s golden boy.

It seems 2012 is shaping up to be the year the debates about internet piracy really start exploding into some direct action. Presumably the likes of Spotify (whose new ‘App’ update I’m really starting to make the most of) still offer the best indication of what the future of legal music streaming may look like – but it still feels a little hard to tell at this point. So in the mean time, why not get searching for some of those excellent freebies out there? 


It seems hard to believe that a mere five months have passed since Lana Del Rey put the dreamy, unabashedly nostalgic clip for ‘Video Games’ onto YouTube, leading to a ripple of intrigue and anticipation regarding who this mysterious figure was. In the age of internet information overload, mystique seldom seems to be easy to maintain for long. By the end of 2011, the bubble had already burst on much of her enigma. As it turned out Lana Del Rey was the stage name of 25-year-old Lizzy Grant: daughter of an internet millionaire, with a previously shelved debut album, who may or may not have achieved that unmissable pout with the aid of some collagen injections. As sections of the blogosphere that had helped break her smelt blood, a stuttering performance on Saturday Night Live confirmed that Lizzy Grant wasn’t quite the prepackaged pop goddess those first views of ‘Video Games’ hinted at.

The thing about the kind of pre-release hype and internet-buzz that preceded the release of this debut is that eventually all the postulating and speculating has to be replaced by the physical album itself: at some point you’ve got to shut up and just listen to the music. As is often the case, many of the claims to Del Rey’s sound feel overblown after you’ve spent some time with ‘Born To Die’. It’s been suggested that she blends hip-hop into her music – probably spurred on by her own claim to being a ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ – while others have determinedly clung to a view of Del Rey as a legitimate indie starlet.

In reality, ‘Born To Die’ carries an unashamed pop aesthetic throughout, allowing Del Rey to play to her strengths. Chiefly among these is her wonderful way with a melody. This is evidenced on the pulsating title track, which serves as a near-perfect album opener, as well as the soaring, sugary vibes of ‘Radio’. Her vocals frequently feature some sultry jazz embellishments – evidenced on sexy, expansive ballad ‘Million Dollar Man’ – which adds colour to the sentimental allusions to fifties chic and American dreams that permeate ‘Born To Die’s’ lyrics. All this sentimentality can feel lacking in genuine emotion, and Del Rey will do no wrong in my eyes if she crafts more moments like ‘Off To The Races’.  An ambiguous tale of devotion and obsession, which references the opening line of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel ‘Lolita’, there is a sense that lurking underneath the radio-friendly chorus is a brooding sense of darkness.

Overall this doesn’t quite feel like an instant classic, nor does it feel like the kind of flop those feeling duped by the Del Rey persona may have been craving. The staggering speed with which she has gone from zero, to hero, to sellout, seems to encapsulate what makes her such a strikingly modern pop star. But while there are enough flashes of brilliance on ‘Born To Die’ to justify all the excitement, I can’t help getting the feeling that there may still be much more to come from Lana Del Rey.