Tag Archives: electronic

Tales From the Third Floor: Phantogram’s Voices

So there I was in the frightening third floor of the HMV in Toronto. For those not in the know, the third floor houses all of the sort of ‘fringe’ genres compared to the ubiquitous Rock/Pop which can be found on the first floor. Up there, you have punk, metal, EDM, hip-hop, folk, jazz, classical and so on and so on. Sort of a cross-section of ‘scene’ genres. If you’re into the scene, then you know what’s up and what you’re looking for. To the casual jewel-case flipper, it’s daunting. I know specific names and have heard of specific albums, but even triumphs of the genre can seem daunting if you’re not that familiar with the genre. Every song that’s played when I walked in there has had people screaming in it.

I am a pretty big fan of a lot of the electronic music that I’ve heard, but I am absolutely clueless when it comes to genre classification beyond that point. Labels like “ambient house” and “local prog-trip-hop” darted out at me and as I read the labels, I would nod slowly to myself. I would say “man…I like prog,” or “I can dig some ambient music”. Really, I have no idea what is going on there, but it’s such a thrilling combination of words! Presumably they’re not mashed together too often, or they wouldn’t have labels beside them. “This some deep shit,” I think (it probably also has a cool cover, which helps). Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about – but if I listened to it, then perhaps I would. Those descriptions would suddenly be illuminated as I match the words to the music, not considering that I don’t have much of a vocabulary to discuss electronic music (mostly I check Wikipedia after the fact and go “huh, that’s what I’ve been listening to”). Also, I could hate it.

I put the CD back down and retreat over to the listening station. After a moment of “man, these are just the artists with the best marketing”, I stuffed that bullshit away and reassured myself that a) it is a genre-specific listening station and b) it has ten albums on offer! A lot more than the standard three.

To cut a long story short, the one that ended grabbing me was Voices by Phantogram. I dig their name, I dig their aesthetic, and I dig the gnarly riff that opens the album on “Nothing But Trouble”. It reminds me of the Flaming Lips “Race For the Prize”, where the riff sounds like it’s coming from in between notes and emanates from the machine it’s played on by pulling it apart rather than by playing it on its own terms. While this would prove to be the exception rather than the rule, I was nevertheless hooked.

The connection between this band and the Lips is not the last one to be made, either, as Lips member Steven Drozd makes an appearance on “Never Going Home”, the verses of which employ a Radiohead-esque forlorn guitar part with what sounds like a drunken buzzing underneath, putting the song off-kilter at just the right angle for the close-harmony vocals of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter (Phantogram themselves) to come in, but it strangely pulls up where you expect it to dive, to an uplifting chorus of “If this love/I’m never going home”, awash in synthesizers.

For the balance of analog and electronic instruments, experimentalism and pop hooks, this album is a fascinating listen. It’s not a new game that they’re playing at, but the execution is excellent. Sarah Barthel has the kind of voice that would have had a synthetic orchestra thrown behind it in the 80s, but instead of bombast is ducking and weaving from riff to riff, synthesizer to guitar to beat and pulling you through by the hand and bringing you out to the other side. Josh Carter, who shares the vocal duties with Barthel 50/50 lives much of the album under effects but also provides some of the most anthemic moments on the album (on the aforementioned “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”)

The sense of dark and light that is depicted so clearly on the cover on both members’ faces is evident in every song on the album – nothing here is pure happiness or pure melancholy, but always somewhere in between, in flux as the songs go on. The constant movement forward ensures that the album is bereft of dull moments, and makes the 43 minutes breeze by. Often times, I get really excited at the outset of an album, as I’ll hear the first track and note so many different things this band is doing and establishing their sound in my mind. Twelve songs in, however, and I’m already over the sound and all the elements have been gone over multiple times. Of course, an album produced by all the same people at all the same time is going to have a cohesive sound but sometimes there just isn’t enough variance in the tracks. Not so with Voices. It’s a fairly eclectic and thoroughly modern album – one I’m glad I braved the third floor for.

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#14: Atoms for Peace – Amok

(XL, 2013)


(Image from gigwise)

This is a homecoming for me, of sorts, as I got into Radiohead (now one of my favourite bands) via The Eraser. Initially I had slung Kid A (now one of my favourite albums) through the headphones before throwing them off in frustration. It was only when I heard The Eraser that I found myself warming to Yorke’s voice and the jumbly, bloopy sounds happening all around.

But I need to get my beeps booped somehow, and with no Radiohead album in sight, what has now become a full-fledged Thom Yorke side project is rising to meet those needs. This album has its beginning in Thom’s solo electronic venture, The Eraser, and the band is comprised of musicians he used to tour that album, with Flea of RHCP fame covering the low end. Atoms for Peace (named after a track from The Eraser), however, is a different beat altogether from Yorke on his lonesome. The sound of a full roster here is evident from the get go, with each part moving and locking into place around you. The Eraser had Thom’s vocals soaring and diving against what seems like a mostly ‘flat’  backing track – the effect was that of Yorke singing  on top of playback from a tape recorder (though it was effective, nonetheless, for that album). There was a homogeny there, whereas the Z-axis is employed on Amok, and each piece is easier to consider separately.

Maybe that’s why Yorke’s vocals don’t lift off quite as much here. There’s no vocal hook here as memorable as the one from The Eraser’s title track (“and it’s doin’ me in/doin’ me in/doin’ me in/doin’ me in”) and he, for the most part, keeps his voice in its lower register, where it occasionally hovers dangerously close in range to some of the other instruments in the song. There are more low moans and held notes – very wispy and ephemeral, it blows through the hard cityscapes created by the rest of the instruments, occasionally snatching a newspaper up in the draft, but mostly inconsequential. The real show is happening elsewhere.

Flea’s presence here is a welcome one, and a lot of the reason for the thickness of the tracks. He provides a smooth depth to the overall sound, moving deftly through each track with confidence (whereas Yorke’s vocals mark uncertainty). As to be expected in electronic tracks, the basslines are oft repetitive, but never boring, as there is enough variation from your standard afterthought low end track for Flea’s presence to really make itself known. Having a dedicated bassist focusing on a single aspect of a given track really makes the instrument shine.

Often times, the loops here are given a long leash, so you are able to hear them build up of wind down as they go, effects fading after one pass and the returning again after the second (“Ingenue”). One thing I would have liked have seen more of, but was glad to have what we got were the interjections of non-tonal sounds thoughout, as the buzzes of electricity (“Dropped”) or electronic egg being hurled at and sliding down the wall (“Unless”) provide some nice atmosphere or small hint of a narrative with just a simple sound. It keeps the proceedings from sounding one hundred percent organized or plan and lends a little credence to the idea of the chaos inherent in the name of the album.

Apart from the electronic handclaps, which I don’t know if I’ll eve get used to, Amok has a great variety of percussive tones and busy beats working its way through each track. The album credits both a drummer (Joey Waronker) and percussionist (Mauro Refosco), as well as Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich both credited with programming, so a majority of the aural space is dedicated to adding to, countering and enhancing the beats, with only the synthesizer, bass and occasional guitar filling in the spaces in between. The different layers and types of percussion provide a very full sound, unlike The Eraser, and because of that, Amok may be and easier move for Radiohead fans than the former.


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#10: The Knife with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock – Tomorrow, in a Year

(Rabid, 2010)


(Image from Spotify)

Picking this up on a whim, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I remember listening to an album by The Knife once upon a time. It didn’t make too much of an impression on me then, but I was in the mood for some electronic music. The sparse cover and track names like “Epochs”, “Geology” and “Minerals” had me excited for some sort of concept album about a geological or archaeological expedition, but I did not expect what I got, which was a full-fledged opera based on The Origin of Species that was over 90 minutes long!

To my great pleasure, no effort seems to have been made to bend this album towards any sort of traditional operatic style, musically, apart from the use of an actual opera singer on a lion’s share of the tracks. The music is felt as much as heard. Great swathes of the album go by with only the noise of nature to keep you company (“Schoal Swarm Orchestra”). The introduction (“Intro”) begins with what seems like an anomalous blip in your ears, but is actually stretched out and evolved upon into a swaying bit of percussion. There is no need felt here to use every available instrument – only those needed for the track are present at any one time. Creaks and obscured crashes (are they cymbals or someone injuring themselves?) serve to mark a strange sort of time as the synths ebb and flow, burbling and diving and scratching into its surrounding area, with no sense of “song”, but simply of atmosphere.

The operatic vocals stand in stark contrast to the experimental tack of the backing music, but never sound out of place – they come from the same place as the music does, though the music gives the vocals a wide berth when they are present. My one complaint is that the operatic vocals make it difficult to understand the lyrics, with the vowel-heavy pronunciation (but such is opera). Vocally, the best moments come when the vocals are used percussively (“Upheaved”, “Colouring of Pigeons”), in which they are interwoven with the rest of the piece quite deftly and give a fantastic ominous feel to the proceedings. Strewn throughout are the vocals which I expected to hear on this album – quiet, almost whispering in a jumble of close notes with the occasional lash out higher.

The significant album length allows the band to stretch out a lot in the experimental department, devoting entire tracks to one or two effects in order to simply play them out and discover where they can take them – animal call-like vocals and a short echo, for example (“Letter to Henslow”) – nothing is hurried or over-the-top. The album takes all the time it needs to deliver exactly what it wants. There are some lulls and long form songs which allow for reflection within the album itself. It’s never pared down to nothing, but the time that it takes to build scenes from a drone or blip lets you acknowledge the changes as they happen and focus easier. There’s no all out attack on this album. When you hear a clip of just rain and wind for a minute or two, it makes sense within the context of the greater story. in order for them to place you in the story, they have to establish the setting. Feel is all important here, and the use of multiple instruments tracks to carry the story along in an opera is a risky proposition, but it pays off in spades here.

A fantastic experience! One of the best blind buys I’ve ever made. Everything has a nice build to it, despite the fact that what is building up seems to make no sense initially. The noises The Knife begin their songs with morph into little passages that take some time to come together, but become all the more satisfying when they finally do. They make something out of seemingly nothing and combine these disparate elements to create what feels like a proper, whole experience. A very low-key opera, but wholly enjoyable from start to finish.


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#1: Crystal Castles (III)

(Fiction, 2012)


(Image from Wikipedia)

My first exposure to Crystal Castles came upon the release of their debut in 2008, where I was shocked to learn that modern music had co-opted 8-bit sounds taken straight from my childhood into its music. I checked out a couple of songs and filed it away as ‘neat.’ At the time, to me, it was a gimmicky attraction, as I had virtually no time for electronic music. To my ears today, however, it’s quite a different story, this being the first actual album of theirs I’ve listened to.

As the attention is often drawn to it with 8-bit music, the tone is everything here. Screaming old synthesizers wanting to be put out of their misery loop around and around the racetrack Crystal Castles have arranged here – synthesizers that would be bubbling and roiling if they weren’t so busy chirping and buzzing. Though it doesn’t glaze the entirety of the album, the hard tone of the synths used here offer almost instant satisfaction, pulling you under wave after wave of stop-start chords as they hiss at you.

Alice Glass alternately whispers and howls in-between the layers in an often-dreamy alto, letting the synths do a lot of the screaming for her and giving many of the tracks a more hypnotic lilt to put alongside the klaxons, though in “Wrath of God”, she’s on top of everything else, pulling you down into the maddening morass with her. Her vocals always seem one layer removed from your ears, having to lean in close in order to hear what she’s really saying, but getting past that layer is no easy feat.

This album’s at its finest when it spots a single patch crawling along towards you, tweaking and twirling in a small-ranged rapid pace to create a focus around which the song is based, as on “Pale Flesh” – parts where there’s a little bit of open air or a big orchestra-style burst of many parts in harmony actually don’t do as much for me. There’s no question that these synthesizers are masquerading as anything but synthesizers, but I much prefer the alien, claustrophobic feel of “Insulin” (which gives me impressions of Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”, which is a very good thing  to the open sweeping bursts and static riff of “Sad Eyes”. The less room to breathe, the better.

On the whole, I enjoyed the hell out of this album. The beats are engaging, though not revolutionary, and the range of synth and vocal tones and interplay create a great mixture of terror and curiosity in me that I could definitely see myself getting addicted to.


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