Switched On: John Tejada – Year Of The Living Dead (Kompakt)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Year Of The Living Dead would seem to be a direct statement on the extended time we have had to spend in lockdown, but for John Tejada it appears to be bearing the fruits of his musical endeavours in that period. For the eight tracks making up his fifth album in a decade on the Kompakt label, Tejada broadened his scope to use unfamiliar electronic instruments, the result being an eight track body of work operating with the reassuring freedom he has always employed.

What’s the music like?

A mixture of comforting keyboard pads and edgy beat workouts. Tejada has always had his own distinct approach, and here we get the familiar parts of his sound – warm chords, intricate rhythms, offbeat loops and rhythmic cells – dressed up with less familiar musical explorations, taking in dub and more direct electro.

Tejada always exhibits consummate control over his music but this never stifles its emotional impact. Darker thoughts are afoot in the steely edged Abbot Of Burton, which puts its foot down after the suntrap that is Spectral Progressions. Meanwhile the opening trio of the album, The Haunting Of Earth, Sheltered and Eidolon, are a familiar presence with their intricate clicks and rhythmic cells.

Does it all work?

Yes. With an open ear and an attention to detail, Tejada never hits a dud – which is something we can reliably say about pretty much all of his considerable output.

Is it recommended?

Yes. A new John Tejada album is always a welcome arrival, and it’s great to see his reluctance to fall back on his laurels and produce replicas of previous albums. His music continues its organic process and repeated hearings reveal just how much there is going on in each track. Recommended for devotees, of which there are many, but also for new visitors.

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Switched on – Celebrating Daft Punk

As of yesterday, it’s ‘au revoir’ to one of the best and most influential outfits in dance music.

Daft Punk, the duo behind massive hits Around The World, Digital Love, Get Lucky and more – not to mention three huge albums in Homework, Human After All and Random Access Memories – have decided to call it a day. The chances are this decision was made some time ago, for it is a long time since we have heard from them in a collaborative sense, their last released work being two brief cameos on The Weeknd’s Starboy album in 2016.

With Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo going their separate ways, it’s a good time to consider their impact on music and culture from the 1990s until now.

I can well remember when Da Funk came out, sneaking through the underground and on to an unexpected initial home, Glasgow label Soma Recordings. It was unusually slow for the techno label, and more guitar-laden than their roster at the time – but label heads Slam – aka Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle – spotted its potential. The instantly recognisable riff found a home in Chemical Brothers live and DJ sets, like a distorted version of Kraftwerk in the way it strutted across the dancefloor – and in the way it translated effortlessly to radio.

Daft Punk built on this with imaginative samples and utterly brilliant videos – both combining to mesmerising effect on their second UK top 10 hit, Around The World:


Homework, their first long player, appeared in many a ‘best of 1997’ list – by which time the pair had moved onto Virgin, their logo uncannily matching that of their new label. Four years later the second album, Discovery, raised them to another level, propelled by their first no.1 single, One More Time:

The breathy vocals from Romanthony (another unexpected Glasgow link) were initially divisive as they sounded exaggerated…but the longer the single loitered on the radio the bigger it became. The lead track on Discovery, it began an album of true dancefloor happiness, which reached giddy heights with Aerodynamic and Digital Love.

These were sleek, funky club cuts with a healthy slab of disco attached, and went perfectly with the robotic image Daft Punk had now created. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – the next cut from the album – fared even better, its vocal calling card and riff picked up by Kanye West years later.

Live, Daft Punk were securing a devoted following, with winning sets at Coachella in 2006 and Hyde Park’s Wireless festival the following year. By that time album number three was on the streets. Human After All – good though it was – did not quite hit the heights of Discovery, in spite of Robot Rock and the title track.

By this time French dance music was enjoying a charmed life through the likes of Cassius and Etienne de Crécy, who worked close to Daft Punk and shared mutual influences in their work. Thomas and Guy-Manuel were enjoying success with their own collaborations, too – and we would soon see the fruit of their influence through the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta.

The pair’s next direction was unexpected but made total sense, realised in the Tron:Legacy film soundtrack of 2010. Again a little patience was needed on the part of the reviewers and record buying public, and sure enough after a few weeks it was confirmed to be one of the century’s leading soundtracks to date. The plethora of car adverts that still feature Tron:Legacy’s music are a testament to that, and the merging of electronica and orchestra is seamlessly achieved.

An unexpected treat was to follow in 2013, when Get Lucky surfaced – a superstar collaboration that delivered even more than it promised, with the effortless funk of Nile Rodgers’ guitar and the cool-as-California vocals from Pharrell Williams. The chart topping album Random Access Memories also delivered in this respect, though – Lose Yourself To Dance aside – it did not reach the heights of its lead single and even had an underlying melancholy towards the end.

We hardly ever saw their faces, but that was one of Daft Punk’s enduring qualities. They were friendly, robotic types, unable to make music without injecting a huge dose of funk into proceedings. Yet their soundtrack to Tron: Legacy showed there was so much more to their craft – and who knows, we may hear their work for Dario Argento‘s Occhiali Neri which was due to appear in 2020.

Even if we don’t, there is plenty with which we can treasure this duo and their lovable dance music, which makes the dancefloor a brilliant place to be when it’s on. C’est magnifique!

Switched On: Grasscut: Overwinter (Lo Recordings)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Overwinter, the fourth album from Brighton duo Grasscut, was conceived in 2018 and 2019 – but its message carries from there to where we find ourselves today, locked down and in need of solace. Andrew Phillips, the principal songwriter, drew inspiration from wintertime walks around their home city, talking with homeless people on the seafront, while also attending marches of protest against the Grenfell tragedy.

At that time he was writing the music for a feature documentary on the disaster, and that writing spilled into Overwinter, conveying the keen desire to move from darkness to light. The same applies today, in the first album the duo have completed since their Lo Recordings debut in 2015, Everyone Was A Bird.

What’s the music like?

Very descriptive, and with an extremely strong sense of time and place. Phillips did much of his walking at either end of the day, and the music reflects the unusual light just before or after darkness. The enchanting first song Return Of The Sun has the wonder of a new start, captured through Marcus O’Dair‘s dappled piano and Phillips’ hushed vocals, which immediately transport the listener to his world. Edges Of Night reaches similar parts, and so does The Branches Of The Tree, by which time the album has taken an upward turn.

The songs are lovingly crafted, with very little percussion – in complete contrast to the duo’s earlier work but leading on naturally from Everyone Was A Bird. The natural world takes pride of place, realised in analogue arrangements with electronic trimming. The gentle bass clarinet undulations of Root & Branch suggest the beginnings of new life, thanks to the playing of Nick Moss, while the strings of the Moscow Bow Tie Orchestra are beautifully managed by conductor Vladimir Podgoretsky.

Does it all work?

Overwinter, heard by this listener for the first time in the ideal conditions of a snowstorm, is a vivid portrait of the UK’s coldest season. It works as well as it does because the nine tracks are arranged to form a single suite whose mood and climate align to the situation in which we find ourselves now. Andrew Phillips’ vocals are just right, a mixture of subtle emotion and clarity, and the arrangements complement them perfectly.

Is it recommended?

Heartily – but with the caveat that listening to this piece of work is even more effective if you have heard the previous three Grasscut albums. That may sound like a promotional sentence, but it’s true – the duo’s musical voyage together is creating music of ever greater substance. Overwinter is their most meaningful statement yet.

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Switched On – Bicep: Isles (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Isles is the second album from Bicep, the Belfast-born and London based duo of Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson, who dazzled us with their self-titled album in 2017. On it they showed a love of early rave music and an ability to channel it into futuristic beats and soundscapes. This resulted in a number of high profile advert appearances (BMW especially) but also translates into a brilliant live show.

When live gigs do return, this ‘home listening version’ of their second album will find new impetus in front of an audience, with Bicep always keen to give their fans the biggest show possible.

What’s the music like?

In truth it would be impossible to recreate the primal thrill of Bicep’s debut, which was all about having the maximum possible impact on the dancefloor. Yet Isles runs its predecessor close, retaining the distinctive clipped beats and riffs that make the duo’s music instantly recognisable, and adding some imaginative samples and vocals drawn from international sources.

Second single Apricots is a prime example, powered by a double sample of traditional Malawian singers recorded in 1958 and a song from the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Choir. Along with Atlas it runs close to the sound of their first album, with enjoyable kinetic energy and early house highs. Meanwhile Sundial uses Asha Boshle and Bhupinder Singh’s Jab Andhera Hota Hai, a sublime piece of work catching the dazzling rays of our star.

The clipped beats find an ideal complement in the vocals of Clara La San on Saku, a singer who manages the balance of being quite subdued but capturing an underground garage sound. The two really feed off each other. Vocals of a very different kind inform the beatless Lido, based on a sample of a motet by Italian renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo.

These examples show just how broad the reach of McBriar and Ferguson can be, a cosmopolitan approach that keeps a healthy edge to the music and gives the album a healthy variety.

Does it all work?

Pretty much everything does. Just on occasion it would be good to see Bicep develop their source material a bit more, as in a track like Rever, with Julia Kent, which has a really good sample but doesn’t push on as much as you might expect. Elsewhere though, when the beats ping around like images on a 1980s video game, Bicep are on great form.

Is it recommended?

Yes. While Isles may not have their immediate thrills and spills of the Bicep debut, it still has plenty going for it. A fine follow-up which shows them to be great beatsmiths on record – and let’s hope it’ not too long before we get to see them live as well.

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Switched On – Apifera: Overstand (Stones Throw)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

How long should it take to record an album? From the stories we hear, a few months would seem to be appropriate; a few weeks if the components really click. Apifera, newly formed as a quartet, took just three days to finish theirs, which explains its instinctive music making.

The band are accomplished solo artists from Tel Aviv who have played together before on the Stones Throw label, fronted by Yuval Havkin under his Rejoicer moniker. Here they appear as equals, listing an intriguing set of influences that include Ravel, Debussy and Sun Ra. These are placed in the melting pot alongside folk influences from Israel, Ghana and Sudan.

What’s the music like?

Given the outline above, it is no surprise to report that Overstand is both instinctive and musically free. The music reflects the fresh approach with which it was recorded, creating vivid pictures while utilising a satisfying ebb and flow of energy. The mood is largely positive, the chemistry between the players clear as they create room for each to have their own say.

Drummer Amir Bresler provides the best example of this approach, with complicated rhythms on Lake VU given impressive clarity but also allowing other contributions to shine through. He is a versatile beat maker, pushing the music along with positive energy, over which the keyboards of Nitai Hershkovits and Yuval himself shimmer and shine. Underneath the bass of  Yonatan Albalak offers a sure foundation but embodies their flexible style.

Theirs is an expansive approach but a focussed one too – none of the improvised passages outstays their welcome, and on occasion they add even more colour with brass.

Does it all work?

It does – Overstand works as an overall creator of positive, laid back moods, but also up close as a set of interlocking lines and textures. Just occasionally the music hints it might lose direction, but these moments are fleeting. The blissful, watery finish of Pulse 420 suggests the band could easily make an accomplished ambient record too.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Gloomy Januarys need this sort of music to see them through – and Overstand is a welcome dose of positivity in that regard. It works very nicely as a blend of its influences, bringing some of the cleaner lines of 20th century classical music up against offbeat jazz rhythms.

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