“Forget the times ahead”
As another exceptional year for important things, like new wonderful music, draws to an end, I would like to take the opportunity once again to thank all artists and record labels for gracing this year with their beautiful music and safeguarding the art, the passion and the romance. Despite our culture of distraction and minimal attention span that seems hell-bent on burying new releases beneath an endless scroll and the convenience and luxury of streaming technology, the beauty of music transcends through time or media formats and listeners that are really into music are still paying attention.
So, brace yourselves, another list with my favourite releases of the year is coming, supplemented with a few liner notes and my end of year ramblings. After some contemplation, I have changed the format of the list, so instead of one release per month, this time I will present my annual musical calendar with 16 records (12 albums and 4 Various Artists compilations), all worthy of your attention and credit card. Ordered by month of official release, from drum & bass to ambient/drone and contemporary classical, the entries in this list might seem worlds apart, but I am pretty confident that there is a gossamer common thread. The merit of music writing is to live and breathe through various shades of shifting interpretations, so the listener can conjure his own imagery and vision. A complicated epoch triggers complicated emotions and music can be the nostalgic reminder of simpler times.
Inevitably, I have missed or overlooked many great releases and regular readers must have noticed by now that I am anything but impartial (fanboy is perhaps not a stretch), so many familiar names will re-appear on this list. To get away with it, I will claim one of my favourite quotes (by Nick Hornby) and reusable mantra in my posts: “a sneer at the bad choices, an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for the good ones”.
I have repeatedly stressed my affinity for artist albums, so I will spare you the nausea this time. However, before proceeding to the list I would like to share a few thoughts about a misunderstood and under-appreciated art form: compilations. Streaming platforms have effectively become a substitute, as anybody nowadays can tailor their playlists according to their preferences, mood and tastes, but I would still argue that VA compilations are still there, meticulously curated and still as relevant as ever.
I admit that even the word ‘compilation’ evokes images of those formidable ‘Jungle Massive’ and ‘D&B Selection’ volumes of the early days, followed later by the more streamlined ‘Logical Progression’, ‘Platinum Breakz’ ‘Artcore’, ‘Promised Land’, the regional Moving Shadow series etc. When I started collecting records, buying compilations was more of a necessity rather than choice. I couldn’t afford buying each and every single. Sometimes I was too timid to do so, just in case I bought the ‘wrong record’. I have a few regrets, which I compensated for at a later date and at a greater cost, but that’s a story for another day. Furthermore, the distribution in Greece at the first half of the 90s was limited, so I would usually find what I was looking for concealed and buried into VA Compilations. I didn’t mind the silent or lousy pressings, or the edited versions of the tracks, as long as I could listen to the music. And the exclusive tracks in many cases pretty much subdued my second thoughts.
Over the years, I did carry on buying compilations albeit at a lower rate, selectively and mostly on CDs. Disregarding the usual annual selections and retrospective compilations from back catalogues, I have ended up with four for this year’s list, featuring brand-new music, which I think encapsulates the respective labels’ futuristic vision and sound towards 2020.
‘What’s the cost of lies?’
Originally released on compact disc in 2012, ‘Decayed Society’ has been re-issued seven years later on silver/clear vinyl and sounds as relevant and captivating as ever. Inspired by the catastrophic events at Chernobyl’s Nuclear Reactor 4 (May 1986) – also implied by the stunning artwork photography – ASC & Sam KDC masterfully capture the unspeakable tragedy that never evanesced; grim, industrial and spine-tingling yet with underlying glimmers of hope.
So, if you’ve watched the brilliant HBO Chernobyl TV mini-series, take some time to re-discover this album. The original TV series score features field recordings from an actual nuclear power plant, but I would argue that ‘Decayed Society’ would make an equally fitting soundtrack.
Favourite track: Rebuilt from Nothing
“Every vice has its price”
‘Fade To Grey’ shares the same title and theme with the classic 80’s new wave/synth pop song written by Visage. Although there are no lyrics here, 36 visualizes, captures and portrays the desolate feelings of loneliness and isolation and the ‘person versus persona’ conflict in an elegant contemporary context. The exquisite album’s artwork goes a step further illustrating the abuse of technology as a substitute for human interaction. The soft, gentle elegance of watercolour is juxtaposed by the violent splatters of machinery. As with pretty much every 36 album, the music invites the listener to stretch towards some sort of wondrous alchemy, limited only by their own imagination.
A mini-interview with Dennis ’36’ about all things music and beyond: his UK hardcore roots, artistic profile, discography highlights and an in-depth review of the album and the lead track from the blog’s archive here.
Favourite track: Fade to Grey
“Art, relevance, pressure, belief”
Twelve years after their last studio album (‘Ma Fleur’, 2007), one of my all-time favourite electronic music bands return to production in a riveting fashion. Reflecting on the interim period, The Cinematic Orchestra articulate a timeless question of vital importance in 2019: “What to believe?” Enlisting a diverse array of brilliant singers and collaborators (Roots Manuva, Moses Sumney, Tawiah, Grey Reverend, Heidi Vogel and more), ‘To Believe’ is an engrossing narrative of free-form jazz, elegant electronics and rich instrumentation, which encompasses their defiance of textbook rules, blurring the lines between improvisation and composition; perhaps their most definitive album to date.
The Cinematic Orchestra have embarked on an extensive tour in Europe and overseas to promote the new album. Their live performances are always an occasion, so if they have already made a stop at your city I envy you.
Favourite track: The Workers of Art
A trip to Japan rekindled Synkro’s dalliance with new age/ambient music and analogue synthesizers, which is evident on his second album ‘Images’ for Apollo, as well as his latest works for his own label Synkro Musik. Replicating a more minimal, vintage setup, Synkro’s trademark widescreen vistas and sweeping synth tones retain the rhythmic grace and emotional subtlety of his previous works with a nod to the early 90s IDM and Warp-esque electronica.
The double vinyl LP is released in gatefold picture sleeve with obi strip. The album artwork, a celebration of pop art imagery with vibrant colours, is illustrated by animator, designer and music producer Tom Scholefield (aka Konx-Om-Pax).
Favourite Track: Fields
“Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki”
Emulating the atmosphere of a certain time and place is a tricky affair that could easily turn into parody. However, Coco Bryce’s playful, unique take on jungle has stylishly bridged a generation gap. Even his recording alias is a nod to a character from Irvine Welsh’s collection of vignettes and short stories ‘Acid House’ (1994).
‘Night On Earth’ is the culmination of his partnership with Red Eye Records-related Fresh 86. The title and the brilliantly cheeky artwork are a reference to the eponymous 1991 Jim Jarmusch film. The album features 8 tracks, coincidentally (or not) as many as the days that took Jarmusch to write the movie script. Eventful and hopelessly romantic late night tales take you back to the halcyon days of the 90s with Coco’s trademark piano riffs, uplifting pitched vocals, rave stabs and intricate drum arrangements.
Favourite track: Breach The Peace
“Under the spell”
After a long production hiatus, J Majik has returned in a head-turning fashion. Last year, he resurrected Infrared Records, featuring previously unreleased music considered buried in the sands of time by himself and Adam F, which he rescued from his DAT treasure trove, re-mastered versions of Infrared classics, as well as new music from Peshay and DJ Sense. J Majik’s appearance at Rupture, where he headlined Room 2, had already ignited the spark of excitement, which culminated in his second solo album since Slow Motion in 1997.
Aptly titled ‘Full Circle’, the album echoes the various phases of J Majik’s illustrious recording career. Retrospective and futuristic both at the same time, effortlessly oscillating between eras and styles, J Majik’s old spell has been cast again and the enchantment is more irresistible than ever.
Favourite Track: Serenity
“So, what are you gonna vote?”
The label name (none60) is a bit of a play on one-sixty, but the ‘none’ is there to represent the fact that tempo should not be as important as it is often made out. Hence, the label’s output is a compelling collage of drum & bass, hip hop, electro and nu-jazz instances in a cinematic framework. Amidst political turmoil, ‘none of the above’ is none60’s first compilation featuring 13 contributions from like-minded artists that share the same vision and the result highlights everything none60 is all about: emotive, challenging and intricate music.
Although the compilation is technically a digital release, the limited edition vinyl sampler, which incidentally includes my favourite tracks from the compilation – by Oliver Yorke and Lewis James respectively – deservedly earns a spot in this list.
Favourite Track: Oliver Yorke – U No
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”
Samurai Music has forged a sui generis path both visually and musically and is a record label that stubbornly refuses to be compartmentalized in terms of musical sub-genres. The latest concept series is inspired from a form of traditional Japanese theatre and is based on the mythical ‘Hannya’ masks, which represent the transformation phases of a female character into a demon. This metamorphosis takes place as a result of deep sadness and anger, fuelled by fervent jealousy and each mask encapsulates the fiery emotions of each character (Ghost, Snake and Demon).
Split into three 12”s, one for each mask/stage [Hannya White/Ghost (葵上), Hannya Red/Snake (道成寺) and Hannya Black/Demon (黒塚)] the project features 12 new tracks exclusive to the project: from label regulars Homemade Weapons, The Untouchables, Torn, Artilect, Last Life and Antagonist and Presha’s first time collaborations with Ancestral Voices and Homemade Weapons to new additions to the label: Roho and Torana. The Hannya cover artwork is illustrated and designed by Defame.
Favourite track: Artilect – A Message
“Opening the aperture of your perception”
Adhering to a self-imposed dogma, I refrain myself from including the same label and/or artist in my countdown lists, but this is a record I have been anticipating since the mesmerizing Comit debut for Short Trips three years ago, hence the exception.
Comit is the side project of James Clements (widely known as ASC) to accommodate for a more nostalgic electronic sound drawing from his rich production palette. The enclave of devoted fans will envisage the nuances from ASC’s drum & bass background and his delicate ambient excursions for Silent Season, so perhaps the album tile ‘Remote Viewing’ implies exactly that. After his contribution to James Barnard’s ‘Atwater’ remix project on ASIP, ASC hinted about forthcoming Comit material and a few months later he presented the project in its glorious full form.
‘Remote Viewing’ is a collection of electronic reveries. An elegant amalgamation of signature cinematic, melodramatic pads, subdued percussion dynamics and ethereal chimes that gently sway in immersive ambience create a soundscape unbearably fragile and intimate. The artwork is designed by Noah MacDonald (Keep Adding) based on photography by ASIP founder Ryan Griffin.
Favourite Track: Montage
“An old photo album with the faded film of childhood memories”
Despite the successful solo projects of Damon Kid Drama and Alex Boddika, Instra:mental’s amicable disband in 2013 had always left the impression of a cliffhanger ending, like something was left unsaid. The Instra:mental records overnight reached eye-watering prices at the second-hand market, various tracks from the Autonomic podcasts and various mixes never saw the light of day and rumours of a lost album regaled people’s wilder imagination. And then, six years later things took a dramatic and exhilarating turn:
Celebrating the 50th release on the Nonplus label, Instra:mental return with their sophomore album ‘Timelines’; a long-awaited record that finally uncovers the unreleased gems of the legendary Autonomic Podcast series. This eleven track album features five, previously vinyl only cuts (on Darkestral and Nonplus) and another six unreleased tracks from the vault. A collector’s delight and a benchmark LP for electronic music, ‘Timelines’ highlight Instra:mental’s unique sound as co-leaders (alongside dBridge) of a movement that re-shaped the scene and sound as modern and nostalgic as it did a decade ago.
Favourite track: Photograph*
*Instra:mental’s discography highlights, artistic profile, interview excerpts and the background story of ‘Photograph’ narrated by Damon has featured on the blog’s ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ here.
“Music drifting in the air, invisible, but everywhere”
Operating on the fringes of various musical styles, Om Unit has methodically enfolded the endless possibilities of bass music under the Cosmic Bridge umbrella. The latest edition of the ‘Cosmology’ series, ‘Dark Matter’ captures the very essence of the label’s ethos and lives up to the title: although it can’t be visually detected, the effect can be observed directly and is stunning. An album with 14 postcards from tomorrow across a triple vinyl LP, from label regulars (TMSV, Vromm, Proc Fiskal, Margari’s Kid, J:Kenzo, Danny Scrilla, Moresounds, Crypticz, Oliver Yorke, Es.tereo) to cameos from Djrum and Synkro (collaborating with Om Unit), ‘Dark Matter’ is a celestial crossroad where technology and human mind intersect.
The 3×12” vinyl edition is housed in premium black paper inners collected in 7mm spined, gloss sleeve and the album artwork is designed by Studio Tape-Echo illustrating a monochrome warped moiré pattern.
Favourite track: Crypticz feat. Amy Kisnorbo – Chrysalis
“I want a Name Day too”
The likeliest candidate to top this list, Klute’s 9th studio album is perhaps the most reflective and esoteric to date. A melancholic trip down memory lane, showcasing his most contemplative, almost orphic side, steering away from angular corners; musical chapters in rhythm and melody for composed and poised listening rather than sweating on a frenzied dancefloor. It is an album that reflects the whole point of making music: to aim (at least) at your own idea of perfection.
The main theme is deliberately recurring on this feature, but is as relevant and poignant as ever. The album’s concept and vision narrated by Klute track by track, liner notes and everything you need to know about ‘Whatever It Takes’ from the blog’s archive here.
Favourite Track: Flesh Eaters
“Night was coming on again; the sun just dipped into the sea and rose again, red, refreshed, as if it had been down to drink” – Knut Hamsun
‘Handfuls of Night‘, the highly anticipated follow-up to Penguin Cafe’s much applauded album (‘The Imperfect Sea’, 2017) for Erased Tapes began life after Greenpeace commissioned Arthur Jeffes, the leader of the ensemble, to write four pieces of music corresponding to four native Antarctic penguin species, each with their own individual characteristics and natures, and help raise awareness for the endangered Antarctic seas.
Enlisting a disparate array of accomplished artists (including Suede’s Neil Codling and ex-Gorillaz drummer Cass Browne) and a wide range of instruments to reflect the journey that inspired the album, Penguin Café’s contemporary classical panoramas, glacial textures and serene melodies capture imagination even in the most remote and silent places. In the words of Arthur Jeffes:
“… I carried on from there to envisage a whole anthropomorphized world, where these penguins had narratives and adventures that we soundtracked… There is a sense of place representing creativity, where endless space and emptiness – albeit with an underlying sense of beauty and timelessness – is a perfect context for creating something”
The album artwork features original photographs by Rory O’Connor and Alex Kozobolis. The design and image collage was realized by FELD and the overall artistic direction is by Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths. The limited numbered clear vinyl edition includes a signed and hand-numbered postcard.
Favourite Track: The Life Of An Emperor
“At the foot of the mountain he stood”
The Austrian wunderkind returns to BMT Music for the third part of his album trilogy (after ‘Coeur Calme’, 2014 and ‘Zawadi’, 2016). His new concept album titled ‘Yonda’ confirms that his meteoric rise was no accident and signals a dramatic creative turn, seeking remedy and refuge from the despicable paranoia of war and other tragedies.
‘Yonda’ is Kimyan Law’s most profound, contemplative and mature production to date; a refined portrait of the ugly, dismal face of human vanity in direct contrast with a craving for internal peace and redemption. The fragility, playfulness and unbearable romance of his previous works are now overcast by an invisible blanket of anxiety and silent grief. An accomplished percussionist in his own right and master of polyrythmic patterns and intricate string arrangements, aided by Elyn’s ethereal guest vocals, Kimyan Law translates his inner struggles, hopes and fears into 13 pieces of deeply emotional, inspiring and thought-provoking music, a turbulent journey towards that delicate place between sadness and hope.
The distinctive album illustration is again by Scott Smyth (ithinkitsnice) who’s the main artwork designer for BMT Music and the 13-track album is available in digital, CD and triple gatefold LP. The vinyl edition includes the bonus track ‘Collated Recordings Of Home’ not available on the other formats, as well as a 12” square artwork poster and stickers.
Favourite track: Nova
“The light that burns twice as bright …”
Calibre’s fourteenth LP for his own label Signature is a captivating coda of a transformation period that lasted 4 years since the album’s conception. Escaping to his retreat on Valentia Island, where he finds isolation and inspiration, Calibre enjoyed the creative freedom of a taste-maker alleviated from expectations and genre confines and re-imagined his artistic persona with a fresh outlook on life and music.
The little daily moments in life inspired the long-anticipated ‘Five Minute Flame’ which had featured for the first time on Calibre’s stellar Essential Mix (July 2017). However a personal loss during that time channelled Calibre’s bereavement into the most sentimental and poignant record he’s ever written. ‘Planet Hearth’ is an overwhelming and emotionally fragile narrative; sparks from the disturbed embers from the hearth dissipate into the cold night air like wayward sprites and regenerate like crystal flakes in the morning mist.
Favourite Track: Five Minute Flame
“Sunset over Hertford”
Repertoire was founded in 2009 by Ricky Law, DJ, producer and the mastermind and curator of the old-school specialist Drumtrip blog. Based in Hertfordshire, the place synonymous with Moving Shadow, after a short hiatus, the label returned reinvigorated in 2013 with Ben Cassar Torreggiani as label manager. Relentlessly championing a sound that hasn’t been always en vogue, the recent revival of modern jungle has elevated Repertoire’s status from timid beginnings to one of the finest and most consistent outlets of contemporary d&b.
Celebrating their 10 years anniversary, which is long enough for any d&b record label to be around, Repertoire presents the ’10/20′ project (10 years of operations and 20 vinyl releases). Re-interpretations of classic tracks taken from the label’s back catalogue, featuring the vanguard of modern jungle such as Dead Man’s Chest, Sonar’s Ghost, Double-O, Friske, AU & Jesta, Eusebeia, Soul Intent and Law & Wheeler, ’10/20′ highlights Repertoire’s outlook: a nod to the golden past with a wink toward an auspicious future.
Favourite track: Overlook – Misty (Law & Wheeler Remix)