Saturday, December 27, 2008

(Mini) Review: Harland - Phoelar

Artist: Harland
Album: Phoelar
Year: 2001
Rating: 3.5/5

Written on 23 December 2008

First of all, I want to say that Harland would have probably been a lot bigger in my books if her caffeine-laden songwriting would have been, I don't know, a bit less calculated, more spontaneous and with more kicks. And her albums are way too fragmented and maybe in a hurry: rarely the mood gets more meditative, more dreamy, most of the time it's dry and poppy, but does little to maintain attention. That's the problem: it rarely manages to grab your attention, and maybe that's why you need quite a lot of listens and a lot of attention to find the good music that's buried underneath.

Having said that, I can now firmly say that Phoelar is a strong debut and should deserve more publicity, even from Harland herself. Her "milk chocolate" vocals are definitely not something unusual in trip-hop, but are obviously beautiful, especially when she attempts to do hooks like in "Broken" (which does manage to have a nice hook, with some tropical flavours if you look/hear a little closer). Obviously, the highlight of the album is the poppy but very effective track "Broken". Besides it, there's also the great first track "Dry", as well as "Parade", "Snake", "Phases" and "Lovers Greed". The track to almost grab the title of "highlight of the album" is the quite melancholic outro "Imperfect Hostess". Here you can have a better glimpse of what is delicious in Harland's sound, because the pace has slowed down in comparison with the rest of the album and somewhat makes up for the lack of personality of some of the tracks on the album. As you've probably anticipated, the main con of "Phoelar" is the lack of personality: incorporating a quite poppy sound, Harland did more to clutter her album with standard-length songs and less to populate her creations with some personality to set her apart from other names of the genre (Mandalay, to name only one such band).

According to another review of this album (, "Harland's debut album is a more experimental and somewhat darker piece of work than her follow-up project" and that "many of the songs veer into the synth/goth genre". I wouldn't say that. For the most, this is pretty much "cookie cutter" standard trip-hop. It isn't experimental at all, but I guess the writer of that review barely had any experience within the genre, as Salt Box Lane isn't too marvellous either. To conclude, I say that this is an OK experience that could have been a lot more satisfying if Harland was willing more to risk and to shock.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Review: Sankt Otten - Eine Kleine Traurigkeit

Artist: Sankt Otten
Album: Eine Kleine Traurigkeit
Year: 2008 (first issue: 2000, on Eleganz Records)
Rating: 5/5

I admit that Sankt Otten's albums never amazed me on my first listen. I admit that, by definition, I have strong negative opinions regarding pop music and I do admit that I have a strong bias towards the so-called 'trip-hop' movement, which was never considered clearly underground (classical?) or clearly pop. I've been into this sound (it's not a genre, but a sound) for about 4 years and I still haven't grown out of it. I've collected a lot of trip-hop records over the years and I have discovered numerous hidden gems, but, until recently, Sankt Otten were nowhere near my favourite bands.

Thanks to the likes of Colour Kane and Glassacre, I've eventually found out about the myriad of talented bands around this Australian label called Hidden Shoal Recordings, so it was a matter of time until hearing of Sankt Otten... I often think that I was drunk or something while listening to their albums the first time, as I never managed to retain much from that first audition. It took some time for me to fully appreciate "Wir koennen ja freunde bleiben" and "Wunden gibt es immer wieder". However, right from the second listen, "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" blown me away. Considering the fact that German vocals don't particularly appeal to me and that "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" isn't too innovative either (the innovations here are subtle), this might seem pure magic.

Let me tell you what I think: these guys are poets. They can effortlessly place a jigsaw into the right place. They can make us see that things make sense. They always win with their heart instead of a dictionary. Their heart is a dictionary! What they're doing here looks like cartography to me, as their songs have a rare way of precisely expressing things, feelings that seem somehow more real than the reality. Because, each time you play this album, you can feel the night surrounding you, and that's the best and most precise thing I can say about "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit". It's a journey to the center of the night, a disturbing and exciting trip to Miss Terria's Darkness Factory...

When this album was first released, back in 2000, there still was anxiety floating in the air, due to the arrival of the new millennium... In 2008, long after trip-hop lived its heyday, Hidden Shoal reissues this little known album. Whether it is 9/11 or the Iraq War or the Large Hadron Collider, there's always a reason to be nervous, uncertain. The sour times that were so often depited in trip-hop songs are not only here, but you can also feel they're aggravating. In 2000 Sankt Otten already felt the need for "post trip-hop", the need for expanding beyond the already established trip-hop sounds and experiment with the posibilities of this, ahem, genre (which doesn't mean they can't perfect the old "formula", a thing they did on tracks like "Elektronik Nein", besides more courageous tracks like "Stille Tage im Klischee"). The most obvious result of this need can be heard in the single "Tiefgang", a piece that seems to be derived from western spaghetti soundtracks a la Ennio Morricone rather than Blue Lines. The two different styles might seem to clash, but, being so cinematic, the Sankt Otten sound can easily merge the two apparently contrary directions. The experimenting is still a bit subtle on this album, only on the following albums the band has moved towards more courageous territories. Nevertheless, "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" is a (pretty inspired, I'd say) step in the right direction, which is maybe the only reason why it could be considered a predecessor of Portishead's "Third", as here there are no experimental rock pretentions or downright hopeless sounds like in "Third".

It is pointless to talk about songs. "Eine Kleine Traurigkeit" is a whole. Rarely I've seen albums that are albums and not just collections of singles, like in most pop music. Like in more elevated styles of music such as classical or like in some proggresive rock, everything fits in (and it isn't an coincidence that the (initially) last track on the album, "Ende Gut", is an elegiac song performed only on piano and vocals). Each song is like a jigsaw that fits in perfectly, and not even the bonus track from this 2008 reissue, "Stille Tage im Klischee" (which, by the way, translates roughly as "Quiet Days in the Cliché"), strays too far from this. And it is also pointless to talk about the lyrics. To be honest, I don't know German well, but somehow I can understand everything very well. That's the beauty of music: it makes you realize. The vocals aren't just part of the soundscape, it is a facet of the soundscape. Thanks to the likes of Sigur Rós, we listeners (or at least some of us) haven't forgot that music is a language that transcends languages.

I could tell you more about how the androgynous vocals fit in the concept or how this is much better than average pop music or how my grandma likes Portishead or whatever, but, frankly, I hate to do this. I only want to say this: try this album (by the way, you can try and hear the full songs on sites like so why not?), buy this album, eat this album, drink this album, fork this album, sleep by this album, etc. etc. Don't see it as a critic's opinion. See it as the recommendation of a friend who likes music like you do. I'm an enthusiast who has listened to lots of music (not just trip-hop), not a critic that was professionally trained to tell you in 100 pages how this is the next "Dark Side of the Moon"... I just like music and don't want you to miss this essential releases, definitely one of the best CD's I've heard this year. Don't ignore it (I've done that way too many times with this and other albums), because it deserves your attention and you might actually find it rewarding.

Thank you for having the patience to read this.

P.S. And my grandma doesn't listen to Portishead, actually, she doesn't listen to anything in particular...

(20 December 2008/22:17)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Not Nice" Review: Halou - Halou

Artist: Halou
Album: Halou
Year: 2008
Rating: 2.5/5

(Written on 25 Octomber 2008)

As I am writing, I already dust off the R/R Coseboom material, since my nostalgia grown very big again. Because of the autumn? No, not really.

There's a new Halou album. Ha, ha. A very exciting proposal if I hadn't listened to Sawtooth EP. Having listened to that EP, I was ready to hit with predjudice, but, you know, the new album might actually be good! The new album has only 8 new songs (out of which 3 I've already heard on Halou's MySpace), so I hoped these would redeem Halou's latest effort. Unfortunately, at least on my first listen, I wasn't very amazed by what I've heard.

At first, I could define Halou's self-titled album as a "rehash". I don't mind bringing a song from the previous album on your latest album, I don't mind reworking material from a side-project and putting it on the new album. But it's all not good. A part of the album is ripped from Sawtooth EP (all the songs from that EP are here!), a part of it is represented by reworkings of older songs initially made under the R/R Coseboom project ("Seabright" is from Moths + Butterflies and "Eejit" and "Hollywood Ending" are from Beneath Trembling Lanterns), a part of it is represented by apparently new songs - apparently. "Skimming" and a few other songs were supposed to be on a collection of unreleased songs from the Wholeness & Separation sessions, entitled Afield Recordings. But Afield Recordings was never released - they were dumped here. Nice thing to do for fans, but a compilation of B-sides never had as many expectations as a full-grown, long-length album. Having said that, the real problem of this album is the atmosphere. Or the lack of it.

Besides arguable tags like "trip-hop" or "dream pop", I always thought of Halou as a band that creates atmosphere. The term I would least associate with the makers of Wiser or We Only Love You is "bland". Atmosphere is where it's at. However, come to think of it, the one word that defines this new album is "bland". Useless to start describing each song (like in my old reviews, heh). What we got here is slightly noisy indie-rock-tronica-whatever (with some unsubstantial contributions from Robin Guthrie and Zoë Keating, both rarely noticeable - ironically) lumped it with some trip-hoppy-IDM that don't fit in the album very well, even when flooded with - touche! - acoustic guitars.

"Woah, you teh complain cause it's no hip-hop!" Firstly, don't confound trip-hop with hip-hop, and second, Halou members have proved before they don't have to make trip-hop or other such stuff to be cool (Parallelism, for instance). It's just that this album fails to hit me somewhere, anywhere, even on the nails! Sure, returning to your super-duper-shoegazy roots is cool, but this is barely dreamy. It just sounds like the album of a band that's still in pursuit of a identity. Maybe I'll change my opinion a bit over a few listens, maybe it will grow on me, but, personally, I would have waited a little bit more for a different album...

Come to think of it, I like the new typewriter sounds on "Eejit" 2....

Edit: Well, Halou is now gone. I hope the forthcoming Stripmall Architecture album is more polished than this one.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: Sankt Otten - Fernfahrer

Artist: Sankt Otten
Album: Fernfahrer [single]
Year: 2008
Rating: 5/5

(Written on 21 August 2008)

The night sings from a million violins. In one corner of the carpool's black garden: a solitary one-floor construction. Behind its only few windows (almost completely covered with newspapers) there's a dark that is only damaged by indigo light rays (from an unknown source) covering the empty walls like TV snow or a lightning bolt. No one else on the street cares about what's happening.

This is the kind of atmosphere that Sankt Otten manage to evoke with just about every song on Eine Kleine Traurigkeit, their first and probably best album. But this review isn't about Eine Kleine Traurigkeit, but about Fernfahrer, which manages though to be characteristic for the entire album. Nonetheless, let's talk about more than the main and unique characteristics of the singles - that would be too "by the book", don't you think?

"Fernfahrer" could most probably be considered an elegy. A quite low-key song, it starts with an electronic aura that's more likely a reminiscene of trip-hop classics like Massive Attack's Angel than the signature Sankt Otten aura that does appear later in the song. At about 0:35 a drum beat appears and stays for the rest of the song; the drums might seem at first rough, but soon enough they prove to be slow and subtle enough to fit in the atmosphere. Complete with breezy strings and even some guitar riffs (they don't overtake the song though like on some of the instrumentals in Sankt Otten's second album), the song could fit in a spy movie soundtrack, especially on sneaking moments, but Sankt Otten music was never merely a soundtrack; above all, the song is a soundscape. Like in dreams where every 'pixel' is filled with emotion, every element of this soundscape has substance. Even the vocals, in lyrics you might not understand.

Over the years, the term trip-hop has been so abused that it is now considered by some obsolete, while most people still don't know what it really is. Containing both dream and reality at its ends, the trip-hop sound could be described as the postmodern version of other surreal sounds, embedding the anti-metaphysics of postmodernism in a paradoxal vision. Or just walk on an empty, dark street at midnight and gaze at the stars which seem to be staring at you, and you might learn the true definition of trip-hop, one that is not a (sub)genre as it is a mix of emotions.

Sankt Otten know this all too well. You could likely start gazing at the stars when the vocals reach their emotional apex - one of sweet oblivion. The fact that the lyrics are in German and that the singer is male might irritate many people who consider themselves fans of the trip-hop sound, but voice textures should be enough to figure out what the song is about. Or simply re-invent it (a really great thing about postmodernism). Nevertheless, the vocals (often haunting) never manage to annoy - they aren't as masculine as German language would pretend as they are androgynous. The blurring line between masculine and feminine, Ying and Yang, light and darkness, good and evil, certainty and uncertainty - see how many ways to find the definition of the night in this song?

Enough about the "chatter". If you really didn't have the patience to read the whole review, here's my short and simple piece of advice: get it now. After the long-awaited reissue, you will really have no excuse to listen to this single or another; you must listen to the whole album from the first to the last track to "get it". Get it?

Mini Review: Treemouth - Electro Convulsive Theory

Artist: Treemouth
Album: Electro Convulsive Theory
Year: 2008
Rating: 2/5

(Written in June 12, 2008)

The guys from Tiptoe Autoprod. (the label) have a quite vague definition of 'trip-hop'. Anyway, "Electro Convulsive Theory" is described not as pure trip-hop but as some sort of a trip rock hybrid. Anyway, that doesn't change the fact that the band has only few remote connections with trip-hop. The first track is the only reason why this album doesn't have 0.5 or 1.0. A real breath of fresh air for trip-hop music, "Mechanical" makes you think that the rest of the album will be as genius, if not even more. Unfortunately, the band have messed up the ideas, with the rest of the album mainly using guitar rushes in the style of the ones from "Mechanical" - in which they were the loudest and lowest points of the song. Rarely Treemouth manage to conceive something a bit farther from catastrophe, of course, right before diving into another guitar shower - supposedly "oniric". I guess they've listened to some albums from the 'shoegazer' movement, but not only do they miss the point of 'shoegazer' (atmosphere, which ECT (as abbreviated by Treemouth themselves) lacks), but they also mix those influences with a lot worser influences, probably from some commercial punk or emo bands. So what we've got here? Terrible male vocals (like someone who pretends to be punk but fails to be so) plus relatively shallow guitar showers equals something that would have been much, much better if they were paying more attention to the beginning of "Mechanical" - the only pearl on this awful release.

Mini Review: The Science Teacher - Parallelism

Artist: The Science Teacher
Album: Parallelism (EP)
Year: 2007
Rating: 4/5

(Written in May 16, 2008)

You'd expect from Halou's Ryan Coseboom to come up with another fancy downtempo electronica affair, but after the surprisingly experimental R/R Coseboom full-length album, "Beneath Trembling Lanterns", Ryan developed a curious solo side-project that's vaguely reminiscent of R/R Coseboom which, what's even more curious, was called The Science Teacher. "Parallelism" (a name that suits the "science teaching" theme well), an EP that ends a bit too soon, sums up almost 20 minutes of abstract music that could probably be called "leftfield" or "ambient". The subject of the songs are probably middle age crisis and the "benefits" of an artifical world (see the "factory flowers"), considering the cold, low-key music that often uses pieces of various noise. Only with a slight hint at the sweet trip-hop music Halou have been making in nearly a decade, "Parallelism" might be worth checking if you're a Halou fan that also happens to (somewhat) like leftfield/ambient music. The quality of "Parallelism" is though much more hidden than on any of Ryan's previous works. In the end, I would also note that the package is awesome, but it's extremely hard to find.

Mini Review: R/R Coseboom - Beneath Trembling Lanterns

Artist: R/R Coseboom
Album: Beneath Trembling Lanterns
Year: 2006
Rating: 5/5

(Written in May 2008?)

This album must be among Rebecca and Ryan's best works. For this project, the two Cosebooms have invested a lot of spare time into a sound that's different from what you can hear in Halou's albums. In the end, they've developed a form of trip-hop that's more inclined towards experimentation and that's more intimate than ever. What we have in the end is an excellent album for late night poetic moods. Speaking of poetry, the lyrics are very sincere and often very bizarre - in addition to Rebecca's voice, which often is altered in the most inventive ways (see "Soft Breasts and Ice Cream"). Indeed, the songs suffer of overdubs and excessive processing. However, the results are surprisingly good. If their next album is as half as good as this one, we won't have to worry anymore about the fact that Halou has recently changed their format (see "Sawtooth EP").