“Sacrificing time, energy and money to keep an independent record label afloat in a niche and saturated market is a reality we often ignore or overlook, especially when it comes to investing on the vinyl format. So, I take the opportunity to thank all artists and record labels for gracing this year with their beautiful music and safeguarding the art, the passion and the romance”.
The last blog post of the year is traditionally a retrospective countdown. Though our culture of distraction and minimal attention span seems unrelenting on burying new releases beneath an endless scroll, 2018 has been exceptional for important things like new, fascinating music. From the establishment of new boutique record labels and classic album re-issues, to much-anticipated debuts, spectacular or dramatic comebacks, this year abounded with great music. My penchant for LPs was more than clear in the previous post, however I feel the urge to express it once again: Album writing has always been and still remains an art form. When you want to make a statement in music, you write an album and at the moment those statements are more exciting, varied and relevant than ever before.
Sacrificing time, energy and money to keep an independent record label afloat in a niche and saturated market is a reality we often ignore or overlook, especially when it comes to investing on the vinyl format. So, I take the opportunity to thank all artists and record labels for gracing this year with their beautiful music and safeguarding the art, the passion and the romance.
So, brace yourselves, another annual list is coming, supplemented with a few background notes and my end of year ramblings. It’s not only about albums or entirely new music though. It is a shortlist with some of my favourite records of the year. According to my paypal statements, the number of new records I’ve bought this year is 63 (don’t tell the missus). So, instead of listing/reviewing every single one, I decided to scale it down picking just one from every month, ordered by the official release date, thus creating my personal musical diary. I can already see eyebrows raising, so I have to clarify that the list pertains only to the records I purchased this year, a fact that by default implies a certain degree of partiality. Inevitably, I have missed many and also had to drop some fantastic records from the list, as some months (particularly March, September and November) were extremely busy in terms of new releases.
The Future Sound Of London – Lifeforms LP (Re-issue)
Favourite track: Omnipresence
I only had the CD version, so I am too excited to have added to my record collection one of the most influential albums of electronic music and arguably their magnum opus (I personally waver between this and ‘Dead Cities’). ‘Lifeforms’ is FSOL’s second studio album and was initially published in 1994, at a time when the overlap between sub-genres was substantial. The duo of Dougans and Cobain masterfully connected the cross-cultural melting pot of rave with psychedelic ambience. Everything sounds organic, despite being composed almost entirely by electronics and the string parts have been an endless pool for camouflaged samples. From the artwork and the track titles to the actual music, this is the soundtrack of a self-induced hallucination into a multi-dimensional world; a cosmic tapestry of alien forms riddled with imaginary allegories.
FebruaryAlaska – Venera / Criterion [version]
Label: Arctic Music
Favourite track: Criterion [version]
Dev Pandya (Paradox) on a recent interview cited Future Bound’s ‘Blue Mist’ (Timeless Recordings, 1996) as an inspiration for his early Alaska ambient jungle material. In 2006, Pandya released his second album titled ‘Arctic Foundations’ on 13 Music (a Vibez Recordings subsidiary), which foreshadowed the creation of Arctic Music the same year as an exclusive platform for future Alaska recordings. Fast forward twelve years later and Alaska has added a brilliant record to the growing Arctic catalogue. Pressed on translucent marbled blue vinyl, the music reflects the physical product; glacial, deep, and emotional. ‘Venera’ (Venus in Russian, a theme that incidentally reappears towards the end of the list) has all the signature Alaska components. A longer edit of ‘Criterion’ (the original version features on ‘Arctic Foundations’) makes a most-welcome return with a small twist. Kiyomi’s vocals (the lyrics are etched on the run-out groove) are spellbinding and intimate as whispers: “Is he the one?”
Blocks & Escher – Something Blue LP
Favourite track: Gulls
The colourful account of Blocks & Escher’s predestined signing with Metalheadz has been documented in the blog’s archive here. Blocks & Escher debut on Metalheadz was ‘Madness’, a track that featured on the 4th volume of the acclaimed ‘Platinum Breakz’ series, followed by a single (‘Moods/Razor’) a few months later and Goldie cheekily hinted about a forthcoming album, before it had even been conceived. At a later interview, B&E admitted their initial reservations; however the end result lived up – if not exceeded – to the growing anticipation and excitement.
Trying to recreate the atmosphere of a certain time and place is a tricky affair. It could turn out magnificent or horribly wrong. ‘Something Blue’ is a modern re-interpretation of the 90s Metalheadz revered sound B&E grew up with; a musical journey with a vision and a purpose. Uncompromising, reflective, delicate and emotional, the LP is a straight-forward narrative paying homage to the foundations of d&b. The lead single ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blue’, a reference to the ‘Metalheadz Blue Note Sessions’, envelopes the gravity of a future classic just like ‘Metropolis’ did two decades ago; a rhapsody in blue.
Calibre – Falls To You EP
Label: Signature Recordings
Favourite track: Falls To You
2018 has been another prolific year for one of the most creative talents of the drum & bass world and a certified album artist. The EP reverts to his work for Craig Richard’s label The Nothing Special, which intentionally makes the distinction between his Calibre and Dominick Martin aliases a bit blurry. The lead track had featured for the first time on Calibre’s stellar Essential Mix (July 2017) creating a hype of contemplation and expectation (at the time of writing only ‘Five Minute Flame’, another stunner from that mix, is still unreleased). Signature Recordings published an artisan promotional teaser video with sublime vintage photography that turned out to be a perfect fit for Calibre’s hypnotizing vocals. In fact, a captured snapshot would have made a unique record sleeve instead of the generic card-box one.
Oliver Yorke – The Gift EP
Label: Cosmic Bridge
Favourite Track: Ryoan-Ji
170 rising star and avid photographer Oliver Yorke had made his discography debut for Big Bud’s SoundTrax in 2012, but it wasn’t until DJ Flight played a tune of his on Rinse FM, that his music attracted widespread attention. Silent Dust and Om Unit, artists with whom he shares common musical vision and aesthetics readily signed him and the partnerships have culminated in 3 great releases for none60 and Cosmic Bridge respectively.
‘The Gift EP’ features 4 emotionally charged 170/post-Autonomic pieces. Echoes of ‘True Romance’ can be heard on the lead track, which uses an evocative speech sample that appeared on the TV mini-series ‘London Spy’: “But what they saw as a disturbance of the mind was, in fact, an exceptional gift”. On a side-note, Oliver Yorke has designed the artwork for Om Unit’s forthcoming ‘Violet EP’ due next month.
Naibu – Splitter EP
Label: Warm Communications
Favourite Track: Faux Tech
Texas-based label Warm Communications has cemented its place as a forward-thinking drum & bass outlet and this year has only confirmed that with five great records on the main label (plus one on my favourite ambient electronica sub-label Short Trips by none other than Aural Imbalance).
Celebrating the 50th release milestone, French sensation Naibu makes his debut on Warm with the ‘Splitter EP’, a cinematic 3-tracker paying homage to the mechanics of drum & bass icon Photek. Naibu has been quiet this year as he has been putting the finishing touch on his 6th studio album titled ‘Manoeuvres’ out now on Horizons Music.
S.P.Y – Grey Days / Shadows Of The Mind
Favourite track: Shadows Of The Mind
S.P.Y’s meteoric rise to drum & bass fame deserves a case-study. His first vinyl foray has been for Med School in 2006, the Hospital Records’ sub-label established for discovering and nurturing new talents and the trajectory has been upward ever since. Having recorded for the genre’s most prestigious labels, S.P.Y returned with laurels on the main label.
After concluding the ‘Alone In The Dark’ trilogy last year on Hospital, S.P.Y emerged in 2018 with his newly formed ‘Dubplate Style’ movement, paying tribute to the golden mid-90s era. Ultra-limited edition of 100 hand-stamped and numbered 10” copies exclusive to the Hospital store, the series has already reached eye-watering prices on the second-hand market. I slept on the first installment (‘Frequency/Midnight Blue’), which I think is better by the way, but I got lucky on the second (F5 crew and all).
Djrum – Portrait With Firewood LP
Favourite Track: Waters Rising (feat. Lola Empire)
In March 2014, DJ Presha played for the first time in Athens and I had the pleasure to meet and interview him (archive here). He was about to rebrand Samurai Music with a new logo and catalogue numbers. The first release of Samurai Red Seal (now defunct) was by an artist called Djrum and that’s how I discovered him (bit late at the party, I know).
Fast forward to 2017, Djrum released the ‘Broken Glass Arch EP’, which was the prelude to his majestic second studio album ‘Portrait With Firewood’. Drawing from his classical music training and overcoming his inherent modesty of integrating his piano improvisations into his recordings, Djrum delivered a work of beauty that captures almost poetically an emotionally turbulent period. In his own words:
“It’s a confessional record … I realize that’s a word mostly used to describe singer/songwriter rather than (largely) instrumental music, but I think it’s apt. There’s a sort of emotional candour. Music helps me to communicate the sorts of things that I find almost impossible to put in to words. I think the process for this album has helped me create a richer and emotionally complex body of work than I have managed before”
bvdub – Drowning in Daylight LP
Favourite Track: Seas Of Shores, Forever Sweeping
If I have to thank Presha for bringing Djrum to my attention, then ASC deserves the credit for my discovery of ambient master bvdub. Purveyor of deep and cerebral abstract music, Brock van Wey is on a league of his own. bvdub’s tracks have featured regularly on Auxiliary Music’s ‘Auxcasts’ and this is how ASC announced the 6th edition of the ‘Auxiliary Symbols’ series on his blog: “East Of Oceans, otherwise known as bvdub needs no introduction to all of you, who have your heads screwed on the right way”.
Back from his self-imposed exile in China, bvdub recorded in a tiny room in Warsaw an elegy of epic proportions. ‘Drowning in Daylight’ could well be his crowning achievement and a testament to the power of sentimental, instrumental music with four tracks running around the 20-min mark each; heart-breaking, thought-provoking, haunting and emotionally draining.
In Van Wey’s own words:
“24 years ago, I bought my first Apollo album… as fate would have it, also a double vinyl LP 😉 Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I’d live to be 44, much less that somehow over two decades later I would be part of the story. I couldn’t be more honored. Thanks Apollo Records for bringing surreality to reality”.
dBridge – A Love I Can’t Explain LP
Favourite Track: Filtered Scenes
Exactly 6 years ago, dBridge played in Athens. The day after the gig, he curated a ‘Red Bull Music Academy’ workshop, where he talked about music production and had a Q&A session with the audience. He pretty much confirmed that ‘Autonomic’ had completed its natural course (after Instra:mental disbanded for pastures new) and disclosed the future collaboration with Damon Kid Drama (turned out to be the ‘Heart Drive’ project). When asked about a follow-up to his sophomore (solo) album ‘The Gemini Principle’ he was rather cryptic, saying that there were also other musical paths to explore, but it would definitely happen when the time was right.
That time is now, as dBridge returns ten years after his first solo album with a new musical statement. Enjoying the creative freedom of a taste-maker relieved from expectations and genre confines, dBridge re-invented his artistic persona with a fresh outlook on life and music. ‘A Love I Can’t Explain’ is a personal and introspective album; a collage of pages from his musical mental diary, with memories, images and impressions printed on vinyl grooves.
VA – Venus EP (Planet Series)
Label: Rupture LDN
Favourite Track: Dead Man’s Chest x Thugwidow – Sleepless on Venus
One of the most-popular London drum & bass club nights, turned into a record label in 2012. Cultivating an inclusive and meticulous approach to the genre, Rupture has garnered praise and unconditional support from fans and peers alike and stands at the forefront of experimental, cutting edge drum & bass.
‘The Fifth Column’ compilation set that was published on March to universal acclaim summarized the label’s ethos and vision and after public demand it was repressed. In November, Rupture introduced the brilliant ‘Planets Series’; a sneak preview to their Jungle Universe. Pressed on marbled vinyl and released in pairs, the first installment features the two planets closest to the sun, Venus & Mercury. The micro-contradictions of the first two editions counter-intuitively complement each other and would be the perfect soundtrack of a retro sci-fi film on a fuzzy VHS tape. After a lot of contemplation to pick a favourite, I would go for the bleepy tonal vignettes of ‘Sleepless on Venus’, which slowly dissolve to ‘Boards-Of-Canada-esque’ shades.
Blu Mar Ten – Six Million Names Of God (re-issue)
Label: Exceptional/BMT Music
Favourite Track: I Wake Up
Blu Mar Ten Music completed an impressive last quarter of the year with three (!) great albums by RQ (‘Solid Ground LP’), Akuratyde (‘Past Lives LP’) and Blu Mar Ten (‘The Six Million Names Of God’ LP re-issue). Although all three rightfully deserve a place in the list, regular readers already know that I am so enchanted with the latter that I couldn’t leave it out.
15 years ago Blu Mar Ten released ‘The Six Million Names of God’ on Exceptional Records, which has long since been deleted from everywhere. The album represented collective ambient and downtempo work, written between 1997 and 2003, unveiling their artistic influences (from The Cars to Kate Bush). It’s been one of my all-time favourite albums with the utmost sentimental value, echoing carefree and simpler times I reminisce with bitter-sweet nostalgia. Celebrating the 15th year anniversary, they’ve had it re-mastered and repackaged with new, beautiful artwork (which does justice to the original design, female abstract portraits being a recurring theme) and is available this winter only for a few people. 300, individually numbered copies strictly available from the BMT store, no digital, no streaming, no represses. Now, I just have to corner Chris to sign it as well.
History notes, a brief review and the story about how I accidentally stumbled upon ‘The Six Million Names Of God’ for the first time and the spell was cast is available in the blog’s archive here.
Let’s hope that 2019 will be as prolific and exciting as this year. Back in January with the next issues of the ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ and ‘On the Outside, Looking In’ series.