30/11/2018: “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich

Minimalist music was a polarising movement at the time of its creation, but has since gained a measure of acceptance in the classical music world. The central credo is essentially to use less of everything. Less notes, less ideas, more experimentation.

This doesn’t mean that the style has nothing going on; it’s not about creating 10 minute songs consisting primarily of silence (although this has been done). It’s just about viewing music in a way that repeats certain themes, much in the manner of Indian classical music (from which a lot of minimalist music takes its inspiration).

For it’s critics, it’s a musical form that has boredom and repetitiveness written into its DNA.

But for all that much of it does indeed sound very similar, there are more than a few pieces created by its luminaries that slot comfortably into place alongside the traditional classical canon.

Steve Reich is probably my favourite out of the main composers associated with the movement such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass. He tends to favour percussion and heavily rhythmic styles.

“Electric Counterpoint” is a song written for guitar. Or more accurately, guitars. Lots and lots of guitars. A full ensemble for this has 11 guitars and two basses!

The first recording, by experimental jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, was made by him overdubbing himself many times, creating a thick mist of sound drifting and swirling, with an airy, diaphanous sheen.

The piece is divided into three parts, called Fast I, Slow II and Fast III. The parts do what they say on the tin…

The song was released first on the album Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint in 1989, with the Kronos Quartet’s rendering of the composition “Different Trains”.

Timeless quality.

29/11/2018: “Ageispolis” by Aphex Twin

Today I will examine another of Richard D James’ weird and wonderful creations.

Anyone familiar with Aphex will know that this is a very easy name by his standards. A typical example of how he’s been naming songs for the past 20 years or so would be a song like “S950tx16wasr10 (Earth Portal Mix)” from 2016’s Syro. Just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it? 

Before that he used a lot of anagrams, and threw Cornish words into the mix in case anybody thought it was too accessible.

But on his debut album Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (released in ’92 so now about 30 years ago), he mainly uses Greek sounding names, instead of random strings of letters, numbers and symbols that look like error codes from alien computers…

“Ageispolis” is very listenable, a tidy and clean piece of electro-esque goodness. There’s no glitches or stutters, and the melodies are all very straightforward, including a beeping synth riff that wouldn’t seem out of place on a pop track. That said, it is still very much an Aphex Twin production, with layers of dense atmospheric pads smothering a distorted bassline.

It’s very calming stuff, and all the more so for its simplicity.

Fantastic.

28/11/2018: “Classic Deluxe” by Horsepower Productions

The word “Dubstep” was first used in print in 2002 to describe Horsepower Productions’ new style of 2-step garage.

It’s reputed to have been used by DJ Hatcha at the famous Big Apple record shop in Croydon, but either way, there’s no getting away from how important Benny Ill & the rest of the group have been in the mutation of dark 2-step into dubstep. It’s easy to hear the 2-step influence here in the bass and drums, but it’s also clear to hear the dubby vibes that originally gave dubstep its title.

Like lots of the music from that time, it’s quite unique. It’s heavily sample based, and atmospheric in a way that belies the Croydon roots of the sound.

Although the song is very much a bass driven one, it presents a nice listening experience too, with a rich selection of vaguely tropical sounds adorning the central rhythmic pulse.

The album In Fine Style, from which this song is taken, was released in 2002 on the seminal dubstep label Tempa, which until slightly after that point had essentially just been releasing the songs on the album as singles anyway!

Still ahead of its time!

27/11/2018: “Rising Force” by Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie Malmsteen is hardly the only guitarist to use incredibly fast shredding techniques to play supersonic solos and racing riffs.

But he’s easily one of the best. His brand of lightning quick neo-classical metal (metal incorporating ideas and techniques from classical guitar)  is very 80s, but very cool. He’s been rated by Time magazine as being the 9th best guitar player of all time.

One of the reasons that he is maybe more obscure is because a lot of his songs are so intensely fast. But there are plenty of tracks that, although admittedly pacey, are very much catchy metal tunes.

“Rising Force” is a blur of shredding and soloing. However, Malmsteen has crafted a particularly accessible head banger with this. His vocals are surprising good, and the melodies are classic. The song is rhythmically quite complex, as you might expect from a classically influenced guitarist.

Where the song really gets awesome is the guitar solos. He runs up and down arpeggios and scales at truly astounding speeds, which isn’t the most expressive style of soloing, it’s true, but it’s awesome to listen to!

“Rising Force” was released in 1988 on the album Odyssey, which is slightly confusing because he released an album called Rising Force in 1984.

26/11/2018: “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding

This song almost didn’t get made. The tragic reason for this is that Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash less than a month after the song was recorded.

In fact, the plane crash was December 10th 1967, and the last session Redding got a chance to record for this song was December 7th. He had actually planned to go back and finish the song.

The producer, Steve Cropper, had to finish the song after Otis’ death.

The song is melancholic in a particular despondent way. It’s about a guy just sitting there watching the boats out of boredom, to get away from it all. So the feeling is like a guy kicking a stone or something like that.

The music itself is in that vein. It isn’t sullen, but it isn’t a triumphant song either. The vocals are great, and really convey the emotion of the lyrics. The rest of the song is simple, but that’s good. It means that nothing is taken away from Otis’ performance. The melodies really follow him, from the horns, the guitar, and the bass.

The song was released posthumously in 1968 on an album of the same name, and became a #1 hit. It also won two Grammies.

Taken from us too soon.

25/11/2018: “Ruins” by Portico Quartet

Presumably there are people who could listen to “Ruins” and not enjoy it. Perhaps Jazz snobs who feel it is too watered down. Maybe the sort of people who keep Justin Bieber in the charts. But I do feel that on the whole, it’s a sublimely brilliant song, and most people would enjoy it.

The star of the show is the beautiful saxophone, which plays an ethereal melody which practically glistens, such is its lustrous timbre. The bass is warm and reassuring, probably more prominent than a more traditional jazz song as well.

The group incorporate a lot of electronic effects, which is something that they used more of after their hang player left. It’s a shame, because although you can still hear the hang (which is the sort of steel drum you can see in the video), it’s a very expressive instrument that is worthy of it’s own solo, even to the point where a song composed of just a hang can be entrancing.

Sometimes when jazz groups attempt to be more contemporary, some of the swing and soul can be lost. But here, the balance is struck right, and the cacophony of reverb and other effects add to the atmospheric feeling of the song.

The song is from the band’s eponymous 2012 album, which received a slew of positive reviews from critics. Rightly so!

Quite hypnotic…

24/11/2018: “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” by The Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys were legends. Their brand of easy going, rebellious humour driven hip-hop was decades ahead of its time, and more than that, they did it at a time where white people doing hip hop even slightly convincingly was unheard of.

Part of the reason they were able to get away with that is that they were not trying to be N.W.A.

Coming from a hardcore NY punk background, the original sound of the Beastie Boys was in fact rock music. They then moved into hip hop.

“Fight For Your Right” is an anthem, and still essentially a rock anthem. However, at that point, the Beastie Boys were doing hip hop; the song actually has its roots, like so much of their other stuff, in a joke. They were making fun of a certain type of mid 80s rock that emphasised the “bad ass” aesthetic when it was really nothing of the sort. The band stopped playing the song live because it really wasn’t their style, and they were embarrassed.

Regardless of how serious it was meant to be, it’s undeniably a classic song. More than that, it works very well as a “party” song, just the sort of thing it was meant to parody. The chorus in particular lends itself very well to drunken singalongs. The guitar riffs are simple but effective, with a natural jam to the rhythm section that keeps the whole thing brimming to the top with youthful energy.

The song is from Licensed To Ill,  the group’s 1986 debut album, and has since appeared in a plethora of lists such as  “the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Not bad for a song that was meant to be a joke!

23/11/2018: “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” by Curtis Mayfield

Although America saw riots over race relations a couple of years ago, and have elected a President in large part because of his xenophobic ramblings and white supremacist apologist campaign, things weren’t always so rosy.

It wasn’t until 1964 that segregation was made illegal, and when MLK was killed in ’68 there were huge riots.

Curtis, the album this was taken from, was released in 1970, so only a few of years after these events.

He lists a few groups, such as whites, blacks and Jews (not the words he uses…) and emphasises the essentially unity of the human race by our collective damnation. At least that’s what it sounds like!

The song is equal parts funky, orchestral, dramatic and prophetic. It’s a political song, but with obvious overtones of religious warning.

The song’s rhythm is a syncopated riot, with a rolling, slow drum part overlaided with a conga/bongo section. The bass is prominent, and more interesting for the fact that it is played with some distortion for a delicious, warm fuzzy sound. It feels rather psychedelic, especially as Mayfield’s vocals tend to drift over the top rather than being the main focus.

There’s a nice string and horns section too, which adds to the gravity of the whole thing.

it might not have a great deal of urgency, but it remains a powerful statement on race relations.

22/11/2018: “Fire” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jimi Hendrix is one of history’s greatest musicians, there’s no doubt about that.

His skill with the guitar, especially his innovative techniques, has cemented his place in the Rock n Roll pantheon.

His songwriting and singing was pretty good as well, meaning that many of his songs has attained iconic status, as indeed has the man himself.

Although the song was inspired by a line literally about a fireplace and a dog (“Move over Rover let Jimi take over”), the song has some slightly more risque overtones, although in fairness it never quite spills over into smuttiness.

The song kicks off, and in my opinion is sustained, by some pretty wicked drumming. Mitch Mitchell is a great drummer, for sure! It’s fast and funky, almost a continuous roll of snares and hihats.

The bass stops and starts, before letting loose in the choruses. It adds up to a smashing rhythm section.

The guitar riffs follow the bass for the most part, with a pleasant fuzz to them. But when Hendrix unleashes his solos, the guitar soars.

The song was on the 1967 album Are You Experienced, and has become one of Hendrix’s most popular songs.

So speedy!

21/11/2018: “Come On Home” by Lijadu Sisters

The Lijadu sisters make good times music. It’s sunny, everyone is feeling good, and life is great!

The actual sound, close as it is to being sonic sunshine, fuses Afro-beat and traditional Nigerian sounds with western styles such as disco and funk, even to the extent that they sing in both English and Yoruba.

“Come On Home” is a cheerful song, with a limber bassline driving the piece forward, and some carefree piano riffs decorating the soundscape like sea shells on a lush beach.

The singing is of course tremendously soulful, with a special sort of harmoniousness that is easily explained by the fact that the duo are identical twins.

It’s quite a slow song, with a chilled out, contented nature.

The song is from the 1979 album Horizon Unlimited. The two stopped making music in the 80s, but recently came out of retirement to perform a William Onyeabor tribute show.

Truly brilliant!