If there’s one thing this blog is good at doing, it is getting off topic quickly. So we’re not even going to try today. “Pop Electronic” it is. As Theodor Adorno teaches us, everything is pop. And all pop is electronic these days. How can I go wrong?
In a world flooding with electronic artists, Flume has somehow managed to catch my attention with each and every new song I hear from him. Whereas a lot of other hot new producers seem to get hung up at one or two compelling tracks, Flume put out quite a strong album in Skin earlier this year. He brings a mixture of wonky electronic grooves (which I’m sure will not remain unique for long) that seem to roll like waves through his songs, combined with smart collaborations — great choices in artists to feature on his tracks. My favorite is Say It, which features Tove Lo, an incredible pop artist in her own right. Her voice is certainly no small part of what makes the song good, but to Flume’s credit the production is amazing. The chorus absolutely soars, and he supplements it with a sensible, minimal verse section. Amusingly, he’s even got something of a solo in there, which is another thing that seems to be more popular in electronic music all of a sudden.
Another strong track is Never Be Like You, featuring Kai. This song serves as a capable demonstration of the wonkiness I mentioned earlier, as well as how Flume seems to have a strong grasp on flowing sections of a song together. The wonkiness has a lot to do with it, but it feels like the synths just ride in one steady, head-nodding flow from the beginning of the track to the end.
Unsurprisingly, those two songs are Flume’s most popular. However, I had a couple other selections off Skin that I wanted to highlight. Innocence, featuring AlunaGeorge, is another track built on good decisions. Aluna has a very pretty singing voice, and between George & Flume we have a chill, almost future garage-like production (a concept I’ll be discussing in greater depth further in the article). Another texture-rich wild ride on the Flume express. I also liked You Know, featuring Allan Kingdom and Raekwon. Modern digital production has revolutionized hip-hop, and we find ourselves in a highly competitive environment when it comes to new releases on all fronts, from gangster rap to whatever it is you want to call Yung Lean (“based”). With all that said, I think Flume did a good job on this and his other hip-hop forays on the album. It’s a fairly edgy track lyrically, but as if to counterbalance the elevated role that production has been playing in hip-hop lately, I find that I don’t care that much. The song makes use of strings, which is nothing new, but Flume makes it his own with the electronic effects which add some depth to the track. That is what makes it stand out to me.
Glass Animals have an optimistic, generally upbeat tone. For some reason, Last.fm suggests they are a trip-hop group. I think “chill indie rock” might be a better description. It’s always an interesting combination (Bombay Bicycle Club is another band that I associate with the sound). One of the most strictly electronic tracks they have is my personal favorite, Gooey off their 2014 album ZABA. It’s a smooth, flowing track (a quality they share with Flume). And devilishly catchy. Their more recent album, How To Be A Human Being, is full of similarly catchy songs, but it seemed less visibly electronic to me. Nonetheless, they bring very creative beats to the table, such as those heard on Youth.
It just wouldn’t be this blog if I didn’t find the one subdued track in their library, and here it is: Agnes. It’s pretty standard, musically, with a few electronic affectations. I do think it was a good closing track for the album, and quite underrated in comparison to their peppier stuff.
I believe I’ve mentioned Banks before, in relation to her debut album, Goddess. That album remains my favorite pop album — every song on it has something going for it. Today I’m going to focus on her recently released album, The Altar. First, what was it that made Goddess so good? It was dark, brooding, it had the essence of being out in the city at night (a quality also attributed to Burial), and of course Banks is a sultry vocalist. There were a lot of unorthodox (for a pop album) production choices made on the songs, with a captivating balance between minimal, downtempo beats and often very bold choruses; they also put a lot of focus into using her voice as an instrument interspersed through the tracks.
The Altar shares a lot of these features. The opening track, Gemini Feed, is a perfect follow-on from where Goddess left off. However, the album is missing some of the special touch that Goddess had, and judging by the production notes (#1 vs. #2), it seems to be missing Lil Silva and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs on production. But that alone can’t explain it, because some of the strongest tracks on The Altar came from the new additions on the production team: Haunt, produced by DJ Dahi, and Poltergeist, produced by John Hill. Haunt strikes out of nowhere from what I found to be a dull section of the album with that jungle-like beat, and Dahi populates the track with lots of aural goodies. Poltergeist comes after, and it really is the high point of the album for me. It plays all the vocal games I was looking for — it is the right combination of synthetic effects with the natural voice of Banks.
So it seems to me that some of the old guard dropped the ball with tracks like Trainwreck: it just sounds like a typical pop song to me. It has that sensation of being a song that could have been written for any artist and it was just given to Banks (although I doubt that was actually the case here). Simply not very creative — Goddess did not have this problem. I guess now we wait until the next album in 2018 and see if they’ve learned anything.
Trip-hop seems like a genre that disappeared after the 90’s. Other than the core groups that served as the backbone of the genre, it can be difficult to discover any new releases. Shield Patterns (and Zelmershead, below) is certainly one candidate. Dark (almost like a dark Grimes, with the vocals), cathartic, ethereal, rhythmic. Both of their albums are on Spotify, and seem difficult to come by otherwise. For ease of reporting, I’ll stick with what I can pull off Youtube.
Dust Hung Heavy is definitely one of their dankest tracks. In many of their songs they kind of eschew a beat (leave it implied), but this one has a clear-cut rhythm to it. A strong head-nodder. Dusk is quite different: a very sparse, minimal beat with a strong emphasis on the vocals. Dusk is the opening track on their newly released album, Mirror Breathing. Incidentally, it has a kind of sister track in Glow (the closer on the same album). Another slow, minimalist track, but this one has a compelling crescendo dynamic to it.
It is a shame that more of their tracks aren’t on youtube, because they’ve got some really interesting, almost experimental songs between their two albums, such as Balance & Scatter and Charon. I recommend listening to both albums in full.
Zelmershead is a special treat, a rare breed as far as I’m concerned. Trip-hop plus future garage — something I don’t believe I have ever heard before. We’ll start with Let The Shadows Burn. A very well-constructed song: it has the dark tone combined with that shimmery sound we all know and love from future-garage, and a 2-step-esque beat combined with non-sampled female vocals (the trip-hop component, I suppose).
Future is another good one. It has a lot in common with Let The Shadows Burn, and in fact all of Zelmershead’s songs share these characteristics. However, they all have something special in them to make them worth a listen. Future has its Mediterranean solo section.
They don’t have many tracks to choose from at the moment (so I recommend listening to what they’ve got on Spotify), but I’ll throw in Stalkerdub as one last listen for the day. It’s an instrumental, basically ambient/garage track. Nothing mind-blowing, but since this has turned into a chillout post, it is a fitting end.