Album: Black on Blonde
Impressive is the only way I can describe the latest k-os album. Black on Blonde is the fifth studio album by the Canadian rapper since his last release in 2010. The album comes as a double disc with the different types of music on each. The Black album is his rap and hip hop side, while Blonde is his rock side. The two sides are distinct but unite so well. They compliment each other perfectly.
The Black side of the album is what we’re used to. It’s what made us fall in love with k-os in the first place and features great Canadian artists like Saukrates and Shad. The Roots’ Black Thought and Travie McCoy are also featured. The Black side shows us that he can still be a great rapper while introducing elements of rock to perfect his sound.
A rock influence finds its way to the Blonde side as k-os plays his guitar on some of the tracks. The side also features great Canadian artists like Emily Haines from Metric and Sam Roberts. Even though we aren’t used to hearing just rock music from k-os, you can hear the dedication that was put into the Blonde side of the album. I’ve never been an active rock listener, but I can appreciate what k-os does.
The album as a whole is refreshing and well performed. The creative sound incorporates genres of rap, hip-hop, rock and a little bit of pop, which shows off the many talents of k-os. Instead of falling into a mainstream view of what a hip hop artist looks like, k-os has deviated from that identity with this great album. Black on Blonde deserves a listen.
Album: Laid Out
In the two years since the release of his debut LP, 2011’s Bad Vibes, Shlohmo (a.k.a. Henry Laufer) has strayed broadly from that album’s abstract hip-hop sound collages. Last year’s Vacation EP ditched field recordings in favor of mangled vocals and a more polished, emotional spin on his chilled-out sonic palette. Meanwhile, a series of remixes found him experimenting with dance, screwed, and trap, the last of which is the focus of his latest effort.
No one’s going to mistake Laid Out for, like, Flosstradamus, but trap’s signature note repeats unmistakably dominate the EP. Shlohmo’s take on trap is, of course, distinctly more mellow than those of his EDM contemporaries, all lush synths and soaring R&B melodies. The EP’s centrepiece, “Later,” pits one such vocal performance against a stuttering duet between a snare and a hat, while “Out of Hand” soulfully disfigures a more ethereal sample.
Most of the hype surrounding the EP, though, centers on opener “Don’t Say No,” a collaboration with guest vocalist How to Dress Well, which builds its frozen synths and melismatic falsetto into an anaesthetic climax. All the while, trap hats provide the perfect rhythmic counterpoint to the sepulchral tempo. The brooding latter half of the EP is a bit of a letdown in comparison, but all in all, Laid Out is an atmospheric, R&B-heavy slice of hip hop that proves Shlohmo is just as adept with a MPC as he is with a field recorder.
From the very beginning Classified’s self-titled album sounds like a work of art and different from everything else. It’s refreshing, upbeat and looks at the positives instead of the negatives.
Classified is Nova Scotia-born and doesn’t sound like your average rapper, avoiding degrading women or bragging about his money. Instead he delivers positive messages, excellent beats and talks about what it feels like to raise a daughter and all the struggles he faced during high school. His messages are relatable, which is what I think makes him a great rapper.
Classified features a lot of great Canadian artists like David Myles, Saukrates, Skratch Bastid and Kardinal Offishall. It also features the legendary Raekwon, one of the original members of Wu Tang Clan. With so many talented people on one album, it has to be a hit, and in Canada it went to number one on the Canadian Album Charts.
Classified’s message is inspirational and this album should make any Canadian proud.
Album: Beta Love
Artist: Ra Ra Riot
It took a month of listening to Ra Ra Riot’s new album, Beta Love, to realize that the faint hopes I have entertained since 2008 will linger in limbo for eternity; the band will never make another record like The Rhumb Line. The melancholic cello and violin backdrops that defined that album are a thing of the past. Having been closely affiliated with Vampire Weekend (lead singer Wes Miles formed a band called The Sophisticuffs with Ezra Koenig in grade school), the group now seems to be doing all they can to distance themselves from the Ivy League-influenced chamber pop roots that first drew critics to compare the two.
For what it’s worth, Ra Ra Riot has done an admirable job of adjusting to life without departed cellist Alexandra Lawn. This time around, Miles may have drawn inspiration from Discovery, his side-project with Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend’s keyboardist/producer). Beta Love is rife with fluttering keyboards and futuristic synths, and inspired lyrically by the band’s reading of Ray Kurzweil’s novel The Singularity Is Near. The title track is an embrace of the band’s newfound affinity for technology, and is one of the strongest moments on the album with Miles showcasing his high vocal range. “Is It Too Much” finds bassist Mathieu Santos repurposed as a keyboard player and coyly toying with fans of the old baroque style. But just when one is tempted to start reminiscing about Rhumb Line, Miles interjects with cacophonic, distorted vocals.
Other tracks struggle with the band’s ambiguous desire to use every production tool at their disposal as the instruments are placed in a bitter fight to shine through the convoluted mess. When Rebecca Zeller’s violin is heard, it couldn’t sound more dissonant. But that isn’t always the case, as her impassioned playing on “Angel, Please” lends Miles’ playful pleas of “please stay with me” a light-hearted, airy quality that brings to mind the earnest pursuit of a first love.
The album’s flaw lies in its top-heavy nature; the last five tracks are slow to build and far from gratifying. Barring those exceptions, Beta Love’s first six songs would be a great addition to any party’s playlist.
Each song on Duality, Flying Lotus’s 2012 debut as cartoon alter-ego Captain Murphy, comes with its own cover art. The mutating artwork takes advantage of the mixtape’s digital distribution and mirrors its mishmash of genres: the beats bounce around from dusty Stones Throw Records crate-digging to syncopated Das Racist homage, from TNGHT’s minimalist future-hip hop to 1970s acid-western soundtracks. Along with the short song lengths, the interludes apparently taken from an instructional video on cult leadership and the use of vocal filters that borders on schizophrenic, the art helps suffuse the mixtape with a mind-bending playfulness that stands in marked contrast to Flying Lotus’s maximalist avant-hop epics. And the clouds of smoke and optical illusions that are recurring themes in the artwork are a perfect fit for the hazy weed-rap of the mixtape itself.
By: Michael Skinnider
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA // II
Ruban Nielson’s eponymous debut as Unknown Mortal Orchestra stuck to a simple formula, blending lo-fi breakbeats with deliciously distorted guitar pop. While it was an effective blueprint (see the excellent singles “FFunny FFrends” and “How Can U Luv Me”), it risked listener fatigue over the length of the LP. II, in contrast, is much more structurally ambitious. Besides the obvious, like the sprawling centerpiece “Monki” which opens with a minute of dissonant guitar noodling and “Dawn,” a seemingly overt nod to The Dark Side of the Moon’s “On the Run,” II covers a lot more sonic ground, veering from lo-fi R&B to Beatlesesque ‘60s pop to unabashed prog.
Moreover, while Unknown Mortal Orchestra was a slice of sunny psych-pop, II is a profoundly lonely record. The word crops up on almost every song, suffusing “Faded in the Morning” with an existential heft at odds with its day-drunk title. Likewise, lead single “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” seems playful until you realize Nielson’s gentle guitar belies his ache for a state between life and death—“a safe place, completely separate from being a human,” as he describes it. But while II is heavier than Nielson’s debut, it’s also more assured, more complex, and more interesting - a treasure trove of soulful psychedelia.
By: Michael Skinnider
The BBC Essential Mix is a two-hour weekly radio program, and for all the hype claiming that Rustie’s show defined the sound of 2012, electronic music was more splintered last year than ever before. How can you define the sound of a year whose best records spanned the range of Grimes’ humanist pop, Death Grips’ cyberpunk and Future’s inimitable moanings? I won’t try—so instead, here are three of the most (subjectively) interesting sounds of 2012 and two predictions for the sound of 2013.
For my money, no producer was more exciting in 2012 than Evian Christ. The eight tracks of his debut EP Kings and Them all draw heavily from the same source material, making the EP feel like a single composition in eight movements: a sonata for Tyga samples, warped 808s, and mutated trance pads. His minimalist production alludes to hip-hop and juke, but Kings and Them defies categorization. On “Fuck It None of Y’all Don’t Rap,” the EP’s darkest cut, Leary manipulates Tyga’s voice overtop codeine-drenched sub-bass and ethereal pads into a dark hypnotic stupor, while “MYD,” a masterpiece of rhythm, layers the exact same elements to build an ecstatic tension. The highlight is penultimate track “Thrown Like Jacks,” which weaves an ambient Grouper sample in and out of a skittering, bass-heavy backdrop. Aside from a couple B-sides, the only other music Leary released in 2012 was a four-part, 20-minute experimental classical piece inspired by a mysterious Soviet radar system. His sophomore effort promises to be one of this year’s most exciting releases.
Footwork is a hyper-regional genre that’s received almost no media coverage outside its birthplace of Chicago since its beginnings almost two decades ago. 2012 saw the release of two crossover footwork albums that presented staggeringly different views of the genre’s future. One, Traxman’s Da Mind of Traxman, interpreted footwork’s signature double-time beats with a globe-trotting bevy of samples. His crate-digging, Avalanches-esque spin on footwork was an exciting attempt to bring a genre that’s been alienated from pop music since its inception into the popular sphere.
The year’s other highlight, DJ Rashad’s Teklife Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi, went in the exact opposite direction. In Rashad’s footwork, beats never settle into a groove or a pocket: instead, they skitter around it, with a convulsive, psychotic energy which mirrors that of footwork dancers. Rashad’s vision of footwork is an intensely psychedelic one. Strangely, though, almost every track on the album dissolves into a dark, ethereal space by around 90 seconds in.
What’s most striking about Teklife Vol. 1 is how unclassifiable and untraceable the music is. While Traxman’s jazz and soul samples locate his footwork within a lineage of funk and jazz fusion, Rashad’s cold, stripped-bare beats are a disorientating anti-humanist product of the digital age. Between its cold, schizophrenic rhythms and its dark-ambient turmoil, Rashad’s footwork is fundamentally warped, twisted, broken—and it sounded like nothing else made in 2012.
MIKE WiLL MADE IT
Evian Christ might have been the year’s most interesting producer, but Mike WiLL Made It was the most successful: at one point, three of his beats were on the Billboard Top 10 at the same time. What made him stand out in 2012 was his versatility—what other beatsmith could have worked with both Gucci Mane, Jeremih, Schoolboy Q and Brandy? But the highlight of his output was his beat for Future’s breathtaking trap ballad “Turn on the Lights,” which set Future’s auto-tuned wheezing overtop new-age synths and a new kind of 808 bass hit—and, in the process, created one of the year's truly heart-stopping songs.
SOUNDS OF 2013
2012 saw the emergence of dopewave, a genre that owes as much to trap as it does to chillwave, fusing woozy synths with mutable, unconventional percussion and a willingness to experiment with hip-hop rhythms appropriated that’s equal parts juke and J Dilla. One of its practitioners, Windslo, is a Denver-based producer whose hazy future-R&B ballad “It’s Too Late,” featured on the DOPEWAVE IS REAL compilation, was one of the year’s standout tracks. Likewise his remix of Lloyd Banks/Juelz Santana collaboration “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley,” which forsakes the original’s trunk-rattling bass in favor of an off-kilter 8-bit funk. His Instagram hints tantalizingly at a full-length release.
Sounding a different note is Blanck Mass (Benjamin John Power, one half of Fuck Buttons). His eponymous debut, released in 2011, presented a naturalistic update on Fuck Buttons’ atmospheric drone-pop and was featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. But while that LP rarely strayed from its nucleus of ambient washes of noise, this year’s 12” recreated the drone of his Fuck Buttons’ oeuvre with the textures of ‘90s techno. The most exciting thing he released this year was “HELLION EARTH,” a 10-minute epic that’s equal parts Orbital and Brian Eno. It’s an apocalyptic space-disco soundscape that features auto-tuned snares and is arguably the most exciting Fuck Buttons project since their 2008 debut.
By: Michael Skinnider
Joey Bada$$ is only 17, but he’s already earned comparisons to Nas, AZ, and Cormega. Maybe it’s his prodigiously lyrical, polysyllabic flow, which resurrects classic mid-1990s New York boom-bap. Or maybe it’s the pitch-perfect production from the Pro Era crew, which sits perfectly at home among MF Doom and J Dilla instrumentals. The resemblance is so uncanny that he’s been accused of plagiarizing the era’s sound - in essence, a borrowed nostalgia for an unremembered decade. Pro Era themselves have disowned the stylistic comparisons: “What people fail to realize is that I’m not only into boom-bap,” Joey maintains, while Chuck Strangers claims that, “contrary to popular belief [...] I don’t just sit around making boom-bap beats all day.”
It’s hard to deny that there are a couple moments on 1999 where Joey risks blurring the line between homage and fetishism—among the most conspicuous is his 16-bar crew shout-out, à la outro to Nas’s “Represent,” over an obscure Lord Finesse beat culled from a 1997 Xperadó vinyl-only B-side. (And it doesn’t help that he’s probably the only 17-year-old reviving words like “buddha” or “mom dukes”).
But 1999 is far more of a stylistic collage than his detractors make it out to be. For one, there’s as many references to Lil B and Watch the Throne as there are to Illmatic, while tracks like “Hardknock” owe a lot to conscious rap (Joey even lists Gandhi among his influences). And his youth imbues the mixtape with a sincerity that’s most apparent on the stuttering ballad “Pennyroyal,” where he quotes “Song Cry” over a MF DOOM beat.
Those accusing Joey of derivativeness might also want to take note of his blistering wit. Whether it’s puns like “Like they gonna catch up/ketchup, fuck what you must heard/mustard” or gags like “I got them girls next to the wood like they Lightyear,” his wordplay is solid gold. Far from merely rehashing a bygone style, 1999 introduces Joey Bada$$ as one of the most exciting new voices in rap.
Album: The Seer
Released: August 28, 2012
It reportedly took thirty years to make, but it’s finally here. A massive, monolithic, double-disc release spanning nearly two hours, Swans’ The Seer is anything but an easy listen; songs repeat the same two-note progression for several minutes before abruptly turning into avant-garde campfire sing-a-longs or bagpipe solos. Additionally, any form of traditional song structure is pretty much disregarded, with two tracks hovering around twenty minutes and one even topping thirty (!).
Indeed, the album feels more like a long trek than anything, and the discordant atmosphere throughout only adds to this sensibility. Some listeners may be turned off by the record’s deliberate pace and lengthy repetitious stretches, but these are all part of that aforementioned trek, one that is just as rewarding as it is challenging. The Seer is a masterfully crafted, painstakingly detailed album and the best of the year so far. It may have been thirty years in the making, but it was thirty years well spent.
It’s epic, it’s loud... it’s Epicloud! The latest solo release from musical mad scientist Devin Townsend is also his most grandiose yet, combining layers of heavy guitars, choirs, uplifting keyboards and pounding drums. And of course, insanely diverse vocals from the man himself into one enormous-sounding record.
It’s actually a happy, upbeat listen for the most part, with great performances across the board (particularly guest vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen). However, the problem is that some of the melodies are all too familiar, repeated for needlessly long stretches. Furthermore, the record lacks the depth of Townsend’s previous work. But that’s not to say it’s a bad album by any means – the song “Epicloud” is a fun listen that definitely lives up to its title and the name of the album.
Released: June 12, 2012
I have been a big fan of Colin James since Little Big Band in 1993. During the intervening years he has progressed from swing blues into the rock/soul/blues groove of “Fifteen” his 15th(!) and most recent CD.
James is originally from Saskatchewan but he gets a lot of help from local talent like Gordie Johnson, Tom Wilson and Ron Sexsmith for this record.
Of his new songs, “Sweets Gone Sour” and “I’m Diggin’” are the best. The cover of Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” brings back memories. And big props go to the cover of “Oh Well” by the original Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac – it sounds like real British Blues, before the sugar coating added in the seventies.
Colin James is on tour this Fall; check him out at the Sanderson Centre in Brantford on October 26.
Released: September 7, 2012
If you bought the Canadian punk rock band’s fourth studio album expecting a jaw-dropping masterpiece or a musically revelatory leap in the Billy T progression, you may have to look elsewhere. What you can expect from Dead Silence is a firm step in the right direction from a band that hasn’t failed to deliver in terms of consistency with each release. From the top, we’re graced with the haunting, hymnal intro of “Lonely Road To Absolution,” which features some of guitarist Ian D’Sa’s most impressive harmonies to date. Any hopes that this atmospheric beginning might indicate a more progressed Billy Talent sound are dashed as soon as the familiar galloping guitar rhythms of the album’s single, “Viking Death March,” are heard.
The rest of the album is exactly what diehard fans will expect: repetitive but well-crafted vocal hooks, easy-to-decipher lyrics, unique progressions, crisp guitar tones, climactic bridges, and the iconic triumphant howls of frontman Ben Kowalewicz. Tracks like “Stand Up And Run” remind us that Billy Talent doesn’t need to stick to a full-speed-ahead formula to sound good, while the more traditionally punchy “Man Alive!” stand as testament to just how well they can execute all the old tricks. Dead Silence certainly isn’t the refreshing, matured album that we should perhaps be expecting after three very linear (albeit solid) releases. But if you’re looking for talent, the boys still live up to the band name.
Released: September 3, 2012
Jens Lekman has always been at his best when he’s at his saddest, so the release of his breakup album, I Know What Love Isn’t, was an exciting prospect. But writing 40 minutes of music about heartbreak clearly comes with some creative constraints: while Lekman’s characteristic wit is still on display, his third LP largely plays it safe musically.
There’s none of the left-field pop weirdness of “It Was A Strange Time In My Life,” or the canned steel drums of “Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa.” Instead, for an album about heartache from a man who once sang “It’s a perfect night for feeling melancholy,” Love is a pretty upbeat record. “Erica America” finds Lekman perfecting his signature slow-burning cabaret, while the funk guitar and bongos of “The World Moves On” recall the poppier moments of 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala. Far from the lachrymose fare one might expect, I Know What Love Isn’t comes off as emotionally flat compared with the intensity (and idiosyncrasy) of Lekman’s past work. But its smooth, lounge-y arrangements allow Lekman to showcase his charm and pop sensibilities, and ultimately make for an endearing album.