Friday, 22 January 2021

The Human League ‎– Reproduction (2003 Remastered) (1979)

Style: Synth-pop, New Wave
Format: CDVinyl
Label: Virgin, Universal Music Catalogue

01.   Almost Medieval
02.   Circus Of Death
03.   The Path Of Least Resistance
04.   Blind Youth
05.   The Word Before Last
06.   Empire State Human
07.   Morale... You've Lost That Loving Feeling
08.   Austerity/Girl One (Medley)
09.   Zero As A Limit
10.   Introducing
11.   The Dignity Of Labour Part 1
12.   The Dignity Of Labour Part 2
13.   The Dignity Of Labour Part 3
14.   The Dignity Of Labour Part 4
15.   Flexi Disc
16.   Being Boiled (Fast Version)
17.   Circus Of Death (Fast Version)

Written-By – Marsh, Ware, Oakey
Co-producer – The Human League
Co-producer, Producer – Colin Thurston

Pop fans a bit put off by the Human League's dispassionate vocals on their breakout hit "Don't You Want Me" would have been shocked by the degree of emotionlessness heard two years earlier on the band's 1979 debut. The trio of Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware, and Philip Oakey all handled vocals and synthesizers to create a set of grim, rigid tracks that revealed a greater lack of humanity than even Kraftwerk. It's a surprise that the Human League hit the British charts at all (with the single "Empire State Human"), since this could well be the most detached synth pop record ever released.
John Bush / AllMusic

Tomita ‎– Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974)

Style: Modern Classical, Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: BMG Classics, RCA Red Seal

01.   Snowflakes Are Dancing
02.   Reverie
03.   Gardens In The Rain (Estampes No. 3)
04.   Clair De Lune
05.   Arabesque No. 1
06.   Engulfed Cathedral (Preludes Book No. 8)
07.   Passepied
08.   The Girl With The Flaxen Hair
09.   Golliwogg's Cake Walk
10.   Footprints In The Snow

Composed By – Claude Debussy
Performer – Isao Tomita

It is funny and at the same time rather absurd to think of how little those considered even fairly “knowledgeable” about music often know regarding what is generally referred to as classical. Take yours truly, for instance. Barring Beethoven, some Mozart, some Tchaikovsky and a spot of Wagner, zilch, old sport. For some, I am certain my ignorance, my admittedly gargantuan gap of knowledge will discredit me. I can even faintly hear the sound of “fuck this kid” manifested by way of the angrily closed pages and aggressively typed comments to come. Let the good times roll. 
The more I think about it, the more preposterous and uncharacteristic it seems that Claude Debussy, that impressionist heavyweight champ, might cure my hangover on a Monday morning. I will not even pretend to know what compelled me to dig up this old 70s suggestion. Thanks, however, are due not entirely to good old Debussy but additionally to Japanese synthetist Isao Tomita, a man who has utterly transformed my appreciation for the incredible potential of a pre-Scott Joplin landscape, one dominated, I think I may say, in popular memory by music for orchestras. Listening to Tomita’s 1974 realization of Debussy’s “tone paintings,” arranged masterfully on MOOG synthesizers is a lot like what walking on another planet must sound like. The record in question is Snowflakes Are Dancing and Christ, it’s an absolute gem.

But first, a little backstory.

What can I hope to say with authority about Claude Debussy? Not a whole lot, I’m afraid. My knowledge spans little further than that of encyclopedia articles and conversations here and there, a travesty, I’m sure, in considering someone of such high regard. So it goes.

A French composer, Claude lived from 1862 to 1918 and managed to become one of the world’s most prominent artistic figures, pushing the boundaries of tonality (“the use of conventional keys and harmony as the basis of a musical composition”) so as to articulate heightened sensory detail and color, musically. Though he wrote and published many compositions throughout his life, “Snowflakes Are Dancing” primarily covers material published roughly between 1890 and 1910, material that has been said to reflect the ideologies and works of the impressionist and symbolist painters of the time. Such ideas, as I’ve come to understand, as not focusing on realism, and also as capturing light, the passage of time and other examples of transitoriness. So ends a millennial hack’s Debussy crashcourse.

Enter: Isao Tomita, electronic music synthesis extraordinar born in 1932, that undeniable legend and pioneer responsible for the beautifully executed and yet no doubt mammoth note for note recreation in question. Anybody remotely familiar with the technically demanding and often unwieldy nature of the analog synthesizer equipment of the 1970s is bound to be awestruck by his meticulous and highly emotive electronic realizations. For those less familiar, merely seeing one of these machines is informative as to their operational complexity. These instruments are those of science fiction. Towering high above their operators, countless cables spilling from their endless ports, with hundreds, even thousands of knobs speckling their humming surfaces, they are the sort of thing you might expect to find in a Dexter’s Laboratory rather than in a studio. I mean, for christsakes, you’d be hard pressed to turn one of these babies on, let alone to create something so vigorous and human. Fourteen months well spent, Tomita. Fourteen months well spent, indeed.

Of course, this is in part due to the obvious fact of Tomita’s synthetic instrumentation and production. While originally crafted for the piano and other acoustic instruments, Tomita is able to more fully realize the semi-cinematic nature of the aforementioned impressionist ideals by way of his otherworldly yet vaguely familiar MOOGs. There is a fleeting and simultaneously expansive quality to the works here. It is as if you are viewing the emergence of distant growing and changing landscapes before your very eyes. Yes, viewing. The wondrous visual component unique to Tomita’s recreations proves especially evident when compared alongside recordings of these same works on piano. When I listen to a standard recording of “Arabesque No. 1” on piano, I hear a beautiful, if fairly typical piece of “classical” music. When I listen to Tomita’s rendition, I see a chromium carnival in the stars!

But it’s hardly all roses, I’m pleased to report. Critic and contemporary Andre Suares said of his old friend Debussy: “He was an ironic and sensual figure, melancholy and voluptuous. … Highly strung, he was master of his nerves, though not of his emotions.” This too comes through with more force on Tomita’s realizations, which breath and swell in a far more lifelike fashion than their corseted acoustic brothers and sisters. This vitality allows room for a greater breadth of emotion, for abrupt yet seamless transitions to darker moments such as on “The Engulfed Cathedral” not to mention the damp, shrouded, sonic caverns of “Footprints in the Snow.” By contrast, “Clair de Lune, No. 3,” one of Debussy’s most famous and recognizable works (even for ignant scum such as myself), is just about the most hopeful and teleportive piece I know. The highs and the lows, sonically and emotionally, dude. They really do help to make this record a damn grand one.

“Snowflakes Are Dancing” manages to defy all expectations of the colloquially “classical” and is a record even those typically indifferent to such an experiment are likely to enjoy. To put it more bluntly, I think it’s a terrific piece of work and I think you’d benefit from giving it a listen. I’m not talking about the typical uppity background nonsense that we’re all too familiar with and that we’ve perhaps unfairly cloistered ourselves from. I’m talking about an enduring record, one that lives and breathes, one that demands your attention and frankly, deserves it. It is a cultural event and even perhaps an indicator of how hundreds of years of music might be made relevant and accessible once again. Maybe the music of the past does in fact have a future, or even just a shot at a more popular redemption. Maybe good ideas can be born of bad ones, like Sunday night drinking, for instance. Go fuckin’ figure.

Trey Zenker / NO SMOKING media

Chip Wickham ‎– Shamal Wind (2018)

Style: Modal, Contemporary Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Lovemonk

1.   Shamal Wind
2.   Snake Eyes
3.   Soho Strut
4.   The Mirage
5.   Barrio 71
6.   Rebel No. 23

Trumpet – Matthew Halsall 
Vibraphone – Ton Risco
Double Bass – David Salvador 
Drums – Antonio Alvarez Pax
Piano – Phil Wilkinso, Gabri Casanova 
Congas, Bongos, Bells, Percussion – David El Indio
Written-By, Producer, Mixed By, Flute, Alto Flute, Baritone Saxophone – Chip Wickham

Chip Wickham seemed to appear from nowhere in 2017 with the release of his now critically acclaimed album, ‘La Sombra’, on the Madrid based Lovemonk label, but his musical CV is deep and extensive. As performer and composer over the last 30 years, Wickham has worked with a diverse list including The New Mastersounds, Dwight Trible and Jimpster, covering funk, jazz, deep house and everything else in between, especially working in the north of England and prominently in the Manchester and Leeds areas. For ‘Shamal Wind’, the saxophonist and flautist mines the various corners of the jazz world, from modal and spiritual, to Latin and fusion, utilising a mainly sextet line-up as his previous release was mostly focussed around a quartet configuration. Other players here include pianist Phil Wilkinson, drummer Antonio Alvarez Pax, percussionist David ‘El Indio’ Garcia, Vibraphone by Ton Risco and on upright bass David Salvador, with further contributions from keyboard player Gabri Casanova and renowned UK trumpeter Matthew Halsall, both appearing on one track each.

Wickham’s absorption of the Middle East, his now home, and spiritual jazz amalgamate for the title track ‘Shamal Wind’, the longest piece of the set at 8’40”. References to Yusef Lateef are obvious, but this contemplative and absorbing number sets the tone for the rest of the album’s sensibility. The slightly funk influenced ‘Snake Eyes’ centres around an infectious 1-bar groove which leaves room for the expressive piano stylings of Wilkinson and Wickham’s flute performance, which is very reminiscent of Jeremy Steig. ‘Soho Strut’ is an obvious nod to the influential London jazz scene with its prominent percussion, melodic piano, flute and vibraphone parts envisioning smoky jazz venues and vibrant vinyl record stores – or maybe that’s just me, but this would have easily been played in Digwalls by messrs Peterson and Forge – if it was still a regular Sunday affair.

‘The Mirage’ adds Matthew Halsall on trumpet for this dense and textured composition with Halsall being the perfect companion for the journey, with the flawless balance of flute, trumpet and vibes creating an ideal symmetry. ‘Barrio 71’ is an uptempo afro-Cuban influenced dancer with its 6/8 time signature, baritone saxophone and vibes unison and strong piano additions from Phil Wilkinson. An obvious DJ friendly cut. The final track, ‘Rebel No. 23’, a previously released 7” in 2017 with non-album track ‘The Beatnik’ on the flip is another uptempo number that adds the Wurlitzer electric piano via Gabri Casanova, who has worked with Wickham on previous projects including on the soul jazz/Hammond based ‎’Space Race’ by Blue Mode in 2016.

Strong melodies and counterpoints permeate throughout ‘Shamal Wind’, with all compositions written exclusively by Chip. The group performances are of a high standard but each piece works as a co-operative, allowing for all band members’ own voices to be heard but without being forced. Although Wickham’s previous release, ‘La Sombra’ (2017), placed his work right next to his contemporaries, ‘Shamal Wind’ will hopefully increase his presence as a major player in jazz especially as a recording artist. Many jazz artists struggle to translate a live experience into a recorded medium, but again, Wickham manages to create a body of work that indulges both practices. This is an album that ticks many boxes, including in its writing, performances and arrangements, as well as the audio quality of the mixing and mastering, with the recording to analogue tape a bonus. And as mentioned, the solos are very lyrical and expressive rather than being contrived, adding to a very cohesive piece of work. Possibly one of the best jazz albums of the year.
UK Vibe / Damian Wilkes