Switched On – DJ Food: Kaleidoscope Companion (Ninja Tune)

dj-food-kaleidoscope

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Strictly Kev and PC, the men behind DJ Food, can reveal just how productively they spent last year’s lockdown. Aware that it marked two decades since the release of Kaleidoscope, when DJ Food was a mysterious incarnation conceived by Ninja Tune founders Coldcut, the two rounded up music from their archives of the recording sessions. To their surprise the volume and quality of the material was such that Kaleidoscope Companion became possible. It is a collection of unreleased tracks, remixes and alternate versions, all closely related to the album but structured in such a way that a whole new opus has been created. Kev explains it best, as ‘not a new DJ Food album’, more ‘an old one that never was’.

What’s the music like?

Given that this electronic music is essentially 20 years old, Kaleidoscope Companion could have been written yesterday. That says much for the staying power of DJ Food, and how inventive the beats and sound pictures were in the year they were released. Here the quality of the compositions is immediately evident.

Take Skylark, exposed as a mini-masterpiece. With the crackling of the outdoors effectively evoked, an elastic bass line is established before a stringed instrument climbs through the textures and floats on the air effortlessly.

The Crow (Slow) is one of the welcome alternate versions, stretching its material into a gorgeous panoramic view that could easily last double the length it is given here. See Saw also offers reassuringly thick textures of an ambient persuasion, as does the closing Boohoo, with a serene string line that segues into softly humourous pitch bends at the end.

There are elements of spatial jazz here. Hip Operation (great title!) is an active story, building with white noise beats and detective-drama trumpets. Stealth, an alternative version of the Gentle Cruelty remix of The Ageing Young Rebel, is a nocturnal scene with a mellow but quite mournful flute tone. Its spoken word vocal, telling of self-obsession, is remarkably prescient for today’s times. The Rook + Type 3 takes a more cinematic turn, with another flexible bass and brief figures from strings and clarinet, while offbeat percussion flickers and flares in the background.

The collection’s centrepiece is Quadraplex (A Trip to the Galactic Centre), which starts without beats but then wanders seemingly into the middle of a clearing and a meditation in full swing, with thrumming percussion and a series of spatial effects. Blended from several different takes, it is a mesmerising piece of work.

Does it all work?

It does. The structure of Kaleidoscope Companion has been carefully thought through, and the positioning of Quadraplex in the middle splits the collection into three parts, with a meditative quarter of an hour at its heart.

The analogue clicks and crackles around the edges of many of the tracks are welcome, and the refusal of the music to comply to stricter digital confines serves it well too.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you listened to this without knowing the author, you would bookmark it as a talent to keep an eye on, a source of new and exciting electronica. The fact that it is a companion to an already excellent and revered album only heightens the appeal, showing just how durable electronic music has proved to be. Fans of the Ninja Tune label will love it.

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Switched On – Leon Vynehall: Rare, Forever (Ninja Tune)

leon-vynehall

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Thus is the first album of Leon Vynehall‘s thirties, a response to the nagging inner voice asking where he was going artistically. The response is predictably varied, a creative line in the sand showing off what a versatile producer he has become.

What’s the music like?

Because of the variety of music here, Rare, Forever hangs together extremely well as an album. There are strong undercurrents running through it too- Vynehall’s ear for richly coloured sounds is always apparent, as is a strong affinity with elements of rave from the late 1980s. These are revealed in the quicker tracks, but the atmospheric slower material is equally effective.

From the off, a strong melody winds upwards before cutting to loping beats as Ecce! Ego! takes shape. Mothra features probing electronic riffs, flickering against a white foamy backdrop. Alichea Vella Amor takes a thoughtful tenor sax solo and winds it around a metronomic backing, while on Snakeskin ∞ Has-Been the beats cut loose.

The ambitious beats and chopped up rhythms are a strong feature of the album as it gets into its stride. Worm (& Closer & Closer) is a particularly good track, with a dislocated vocal and big, wide open loops. An Exhale has splashes of colour over the bumpy beats, while Dumbo also hits a jagged groove, the rave elements up top. The air hangs thick and heavy for the elegiac Farewell! Magnus Gabbro, while All I See Is You, Velvet Brown gives us an atmospheric close.

Does it all work?

Yes. A very different album to his previous acclaimed long player Nothing Is Still, but one that shows Leon Vynehall has capacity to master a number of different styles and speeds. Nothing Is Still was achingly cinematic at times, but Rare, Forever has a wide range of approaches, and hits a powerful set of grooves as it progresses.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Rare, Forever is a portrait of an artist at a fascinating point in his career. The multi-talented Leon Vynehall still has enormous potential, and it will be fascinating to see where it takes him next.

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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 – Julianna Barwick: Healing Is A Miracle (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Julianna Barwick has enjoyed a near-constant stream of productivity in the last decade, but for many reasons Healing Is A Miracle feels like a defining moment. Apart from being her first album for the Ninja Tune family it marks the point where, after 16 years, she moves from East Coast to West, from New York to Los Angeles.

The title is a reference to the ability of the human body to recover itself after sustaining damage, Barwick marvelling at the way cuts and bruises heal themselves – and it appears to be a metaphor for the next stage of her life too. The recording methodology was also different, using monitors instead of headphones for the first time, which proved a revelation.

Healing Is A Miracle includes three collaborations, each with a close friend.

What’s the music like?

Barwick makes some of the most emotive ambient music you can imagine. While some producers opt for the distanced approach, allowing their music all the room it needs to operate away from human contact, Healing Is A Miracle offers further evidence of a rare ability to make ambient music right from the heart.

Despite the intimacy she achieves with the vocal material in particular, her studies in reverberation have resulted in enormous, cathedral-like textures. Inspirit, the first track on the album, is a softly recurring chant but with a big, surrounding echo, and when Barwick adds the bass sounds to the mix the music stops you in your tracks with its heart stopping beauty.

The collaborations are really nicely judged. Jónsi’s voice works in close harmony with Barwick on In Light, the Sigur Rós vocalist just below the melody but closely matched, before the big beats open the music outwards, seemingly toward the stars. Oh, Memory has a greater delicacy in the company of Mary Lattimore, its weightless vocals hanging on the wind, while Nod, with Nosaj Thing, builds layers on a breathy loop before adding beats, after which it pans out again to a consoling coda.

The title track has long, sustained keyboard sounds that hang on just a bit longer than the vocals, giving an even greater feeling of space. Flowers has striking sonorities, scaling mountainous heights but with an earthbound bass presence too, which grows to take over the track completely.

Does it all work?

Yes. With Julianna Barwick the listener really does inhabit a whole new world, and if escapism or mental clarity is what you are searching for then you have definitely come to the right place.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. Even within the output of one of the most consistent ambient artists, Healing Is A Miracle is a touchstone, an album where everything falls into its natural place. For an emotive out of body experience, you would really struggle to do better.

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Switched On – A Winged Victory For The Sullen: The Undivided Five (Ninja Tune)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Undivided Five marks a key point in the album career of A Winged Victory For The Sullen. The duo, Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, already had impressive musical CVs before uniting as a group eight years ago, O’Halloran with his solo work and Wiltzie both in a solo capacity and as one half of acclaimed instrumental duo Stars Of The Lid.

Since their inception AWVFTS, as they can also be known, have grown a reputation for intense instrumental music and atmospheric live shows. Their late-night Prom with Nils Frahm in 2015 drew admiration, while their soundtrack work for Iris and God’s Own Country has shown their suitability for the big screen.

The Undivided Five, however, is their first ‘artist only’ album since the Atomos album of 2014, and marks the start of a new chapter at Ninja Tune. The number ‘five’ is significant – it represents a circle of five women of which a recently deceased friend was a member. It also resonates with the significance to the duo of their key musical interval, the perfect fifth.

What’s the music like?

Subtly powerful. From the very first strains of Our Lord Debussy it is clear this is an extremely meaningful album to the pair. One of its themes is different strains of ‘goodbye’ – Keep It Dark, Deutschland for O’Halloran’s time in Berlin, as he moves to Iceland – then Adios, Florida, which would appear to be more relevant to Wiltzie and his location in Brussels, then Aqualung, Motherfucker, a tribute to their recently passed close friend.

Loss is a factor in this music, the duo also unexpectedly losing a close friend in the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson last year. Perhaps because of this there is a barely concealed tension running through the music, which breaks cover at times but essentially powers the slow, strong and meaningful chord progressions.

The ability of the pair to make a great deal of substance from the most innocuous of musical cells is deeply impressive, and is very carefully thought through. Colour is very important to the music, but so is space, each track having presence in its outer frequencies but leaving plenty of space in the middle for the listener.

Our Lord Debussy is superb, growing slowly but surely from its elegant piano cell, the piano itself driving a chant-like piece of music as it mirrors the composer Debussy’s ability to replace melody with harmony. It is briefly reminiscent of some of the soundtrack work of Thomas Newman in its ability to slow time and space, creating a distinct sound world, but the development of the music is too individual for those comparisons to stay.

Two compositions stand out for their instrumental solos – The Slow Descent Has Begun, with a solemn violin solo, and Aqualung, Motherfucker, with a deeply poignant line for horn. This pair form the centrepiece of the album, with the following A Minor Fifth Is Made Of Phantoms offering a little resolve in its organ-like timbres.

The album’s stately progress continues with Adios, Florida, which falls over the edge in heartbreaking fashion at its end, and The Rhythm Of A Dividing Pair, a more consonant and peaceful work. Keep It Dark, Deutschland finds O’Halloran in consoling mood at the piano.

Does it all work?

Yes. This must have been a difficult album to make for O’Halloran and Wiltzie, but – as their band name implies – this is a band that galvanizes great strength from adversity. They do so here in music of rarefied atmosphere and latent power.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Undivided Five takes their output up a level, expanding its possibilities and giving notice that A Winged Victory For The Sullen are getting better and better. This is their most effective and meaningful album to date, but the signs are it won’t be long until they go even further and better.

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