Switched On – Charles Webster: Decision Time (Dimensions Recordings)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Not many producers could come back with an electronic music album 19 years after the last one. Yet that is exactly what Charles Webster has done with Decision Time, ‘following up’ his widely acclaimed 2001 opus Born On The 24th July. Webster is very highly respected in dance music circles of course – he learned his trade as an engineer with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, then moved to San Francisco in the 1990s and recorded under the pseudonym Presence as well as his own name.

Decision Time, as with the previous album, is curated by Webster but features an array of vocal talent, from established dance music royalty Shara Nelson and Terra Deva to South African talent Sio, Thandi Draai and Sipho.

What’s the music like?

Classy. Very little would seem to have changed for Webster in two decades of writing, which is of course an extremely good thing. Webster writes music of real feeling but with meticulously detailed production, so he can create a smoky atmosphere through deep house or more urban soul, brought to life by the chosen vocalist.

Shara Nelson’s guest turn, This Is Real, is heat soaked and emotive, while Sio’s second track Love Lives has a wide open production with intimate vocals. This is a trick Webster manages on several occasions, including Secrets Held, an atmospheric piece of soul where vocalist Emilie Chick draws the ear in.

It is in the deep house tracks where he really plays the winning cards though, the shuffling beats of I Wonder Why twinned with evocative, spacious keyboards, and the tougher beat of Music given a lovely wide perspective before Thandi Draai’s excellent vocal comes in. Webster uses an accordion sound in the middle which works beautifully.

Closing the album are two contributions from Ingrid Chavez, The Spell and The Second Spell. Chavez wrote the spoken word element of Madonna’s Justify My Love, and she appears with Burial, who gets a rare co-production credit on the second of a pair of pieces that crackle with atmosphere. If anything, Chavez’ vocals are better here than with Madonna!

Does it all work?

Very much so. Webster is still a master of creating vivid scenes with his music, be they in smoky, street-based soul or in hot weather deep house music. His use of orchestration is sublime, as is his knack of pacing in the music.

Is it recommended?

Heartily. It has made me revisit the older releases I have from Webster in my collection – and if you’re already a convert then you will need no persuading to buy. If the name Charles Webster is new to you, though, make sure you waste no time getting acquainted with his sublime music!

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Switched On – Chihei Hatakeyama & Dirk Serries: Black Frost (Glacial Movements)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the second collaboration on the Glacial Movements label between Chihei Hatakeyama and Dirk Serries, a follow-up of sorts to their album The Storm Of Silence in 2016. Like that release, Black Frost has four tracks and runs for just over 40 minutes, expanding their already widescreen approach of guitars and electronics.

Chihei Hatakeyama is a musician and sound artist currently living on the edge of Tokyo, and has many releases under his belt both as a solo artist and as part of the duo Opitope, with Tomoyoshi Date. Dirk Serries, meanwhile, is an experienced ambient artist based in Belgium who has built up an impressive CV of collaborations through work on an ongoing Microphonics series.

What’s the music like?

Simple – but that word should not be taken lightly. It is simple in the sense that the music is very simple to listen to. Each track largely hangs on a specific pitch, and no effort is required on the part of the listener to reach a meditative calm. In fact the less effort made, the more effective the ambience is. And yet, if the ear moves in for a closer take, the layers and subtle oscillations / variations reveal themselves, and the 40 minutes can be seen as a single unit, one gigantic four-part chord progression.

The textures are wonderfully airy and cool, polar in their chilled temperature but with a hazy warmth too. In terms of colour the music has sharper outlines and more piercing tones than the blue wisps of The Storm Of Silence – hence the dark overtones of the cover.

Those dark colours become more evident in third track Breen, which gives off an icy residue, but they don’t take root as such – and Frossen Luft closes out the quartet with more drawn-out pitches which eventually disappear into the middle distance.

Does it all work?

Yes. As anyone familiar with Glacial Movements releases will know, the ambience is of the deeply immersive kind, ideal for the end of a working day, the beginning of a new one, or an antidote to the fast and worrisome pace of life we are faced with from time to time.

Is it recommended?

For sure. Anyone enjoying previous music from this source will not need further encouragement, for Black Frost ends up as the ideal complement to The Storm Of Silence. It may be darker in countenance but it still ends up in the same, contemplative space.

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Switched On – WhoMadeWho: Synchronicity (Kompakt)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Copenhagen trio WhoMadeWho are an established and much-loved force in electronic music, bringing together their various backgrounds of rock, jazz and dance to a project that is always interesting to chart and invigorating to listen to.

Synchronicity suggests more of a jazz influence, and indeed it is there in the idea that each track should be a collaboration with one of the many artists they have rubbed shoulders with along the way. It is their first album for Kompakt in eight years, and includes staples of the label Michael Mayer and Robag Wruhme, part of a guest list also including Axel Boman and Frank Wiedemann.

What’s the music like?

Although it is a set of collaborations, Synchronicity is carefully planned and structured, making a coherent album that works really well from start to finish. Like a DJ set it has a measured beginning, working through Frank Wiedemann’s collaboration Dream Hoarding to hit the groove with Sainte Vie in Hibernation.

There are some really excellent tracks here, from the moody and atmospheric Oblivion, with Mano Le Tough, to the strutting groove of Hamstring with Michael Mayer and the broken beat of Peter Pan Me, another Wiedemann co-write. The slinky undercarriage of Twenty Tears, with Rebolledo, is notable, as is the slightly dubby Anywhere In The World, a shimmering delight in the company of Axel Boman. To illustrate the variety on the album, the preceding Shadow Of Doubt, with Adana Twins, has a lovely open air twang to its guitar, while the scoring for the strings in Cecil – with Echonomist – is sublime.

Does it all work?

Yes. WhoMadeWho work economically, so their percussion is never crowded but still hits the right mark – and their vocals are on point too. Synchronicity could easily lose its emotive punch given the number of people involved, but that doesn’t happen at any point.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Copenhagen trio are still not as well known as they should be, despite the love they get in electronic music circles, and this release really should propel them onto the playlists of anyone looking for something switched on and new. A really excellent album.

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You can listen to clips of Synchronicity and purchase on LP, CD or download at the Kompakt website

Switched On – Deutsche Elektronische Musik 4 (Soul Jazz Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Deutsche Elektronische Musik has proved to be an enterprising series from Soul Jazz Records, with its packaging proving to be every bit as colourful and quirky as the music it presents. While the mention of Krautrock will make readers think of bands such as Can, Neu! and Popol Vuh, the crate diggers at Soul Jazz present some of the lesser names alongside these luminaries.

It proved an effective formula on the first three volumes, each offering a double album’s-worth of treats, and the fourth looks set to offer similar rewards.

What’s the music like?

A great deal of fun. One of the great things about this set of tracks is the feeling that the rules have been pushed to one side. Anything goes, and as a result the variety of grooves, colours, riffs and moods range far and wide.

To offer a few highlights, Agitation Free offer a lovely bit of pastoral cheerfulness with Laila, Pt. II, a mood which could also be levelled at Between’s Triumphzug Kaiser Maximilian I. Can’s I’m So Green is typically excellent, with a shuffling groove, while Michael Rother’s Flammende Herzen expands really nicely from a dreamy interlude to a more driven groove.

My Strand-Eyed Girl from Virus is very Doorsy, with that late 1960s psychedelia feel, and E.Mak impress with their more modern sounding Tanz In Den Himmel, and its hazy block chords. On the stranger side of the fence sit the German psychedelic band Kalacakra, with a long, drone-led ritual of goblin like voices. Meanwhile Roedelius offers a nice, woozy instrumental in the beatless Halmharfe – the lack of beats immediately compensated by Dzyan’s descriptive drum workout Dragonsong.

Finally Günter Schickert applies a really excellent beat and guitar panning for Suleika, a track which has already found favour with the likes of Richard Fearless, then Witthüser & Westrupp apply some dreamy meandering for Schöpfung (1. Mose 1), before it grows into a more athletic wig-out.

Does it all work?

Not all of it will be according to taste, but that is part of the appeal with this series – Soul Jazz include so many different free standing styles that it would be almost impossible to like them all. This instalment is noticeably more relaxed in its grooves than the last, but the musical positivity is still ever-present.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. If like me you already owned the first three volumes of this excellent series, there is no need to hesitate about the possibility of adding a fourth. It is another history lesson cum late night party soundtrack.

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You can hear clips from the compilation and purchase from the Soul Jazz shop, Sounds Of The Universe

Switched On – Various Artists: Pop Ambient 2021 (Kompakt)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Pop Ambient has always been one of Kompakt’s flagship projects, but in 2021 it is surely needed more than ever. With no reason to change the winning formula of seasoned regulars and bright new things, the series – in Kompakt’s words – becomes ‘a sprightly young adult waltzing out of its teenage joys and tears’.

What’s the music like?

It is no understatement to say this really is balm to soothe the soul. From the moment new Kompakt signings Blank Gloss begin the music takes its listener to a special and very relaxed place, the Sacramento group letting their guitar run free through On A Vessel.

Then Yui Onodera pans out with Chromo 5, with similarly warm textures that seem to hang on a gentle breeze. Reich & Würden‘s Lens proves to be rather special, with a slightly mournful trumpet lead that hints of a detective or intelligence series theme. Joachim Spieth & Pepo Galán‘s Libration proves to be one of those wonderfully immersive ambient tracks, holding still on one pitch but moving subtly above it. Max Würden‘s Center does the same, with a simple but probing piano line, while Neozaïre‘s Vor Den Toren Europas resembles the sound of an orchestra playing slowly outdoors.

Neozaïre is one of three new Kompakt artists on this release, along with Blank Gloss and Seventh World, whose Light The Waves Before Dawn is a beautifully stretched mood piece suggestive of the lazily moving waters themselves.

Does it all work?

Effortlessly so. The great thing about Pop Ambient is that it works so well but never rests on its laurels, giving new pointers in ambient music with each installment.

Is it recommended?

You know the answer. As a standpoint in the ambient music calendar, Pop Ambient is eagerly awaited and delivers with as little effort as possible. As, indeed, ambient music should.

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