jazz

Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them – Tobias Berchtold’s Best of 2016

This article was written by Tobias Berchtold 

2016 has been a difficult and troubling year for the world, but it has also produced some absolutely outstanding music so I wanted to renew my best of review for the year just passed. (https://wallofsoundmagazine.com/2016/01/01/my-favourite-15-albums-of-2015/).
As much as I wanted to keep it short, there was just way too many amazing projects to whittle it down to a sensible number. Behold, my top 30 of 2016:

  30. The Colour in Anything – James Blake

James Blake’s third album follows on from his previous projects nicely, it is very similar in mood to those two however there are some very subtle but effective tonal changes. He has become known for a minimal and moody aesthetic, underlined by precise and layered production, however with this project Blake has seemingly tried to shift from a minimal approach to a more maximalist one. The production is once again absolutely stellar and the swelling instrumentals throughout lend a beautiful atmosphere to the album. The only real issue I have with the album is that it’s just too long, clocking in at 76 minutes, so it can be a bit tricky to stay engaged the whole way through.

  1. ArtScience – The Robert Glasper Experiment

For years, Robert Glasper has been the gold standard of jazz fused into all sorts of different genres. With his Experiment band, Glasper seems to refuse to be pegged into one genre – even exclaiming it at the start of the album (“So why should I just confine myself to one? We want to explore them all.”) In my opinion it’s the group’s best project yet, in big part due to the fact that they decided to do all the vocals themselves instead of relying on outside artists – by doing this I feel like they succeeded in cementing their own vibe, more so than in their previous attempts.

  1. Konnichiwa – Skepta

Skepta has been amongst the forerunners of the UK grime movement in recent years. It’s been 5 years since his previous album, and the long wait (with many delays) was thoroughly worth it. It’s packed with anti-establishment sentiment, and the lead single That’s Not Me is a good example of the content of the rest of the album. It’s a big middle finger to the press, the police and the government. All around it’s a great trailblazer for the grime genre, a genre that doesn’t usually feature albums but more often than not consists of singles and mixtapes.

  1. Epoch – Tycho

Tycho is back with another excellent downtempo album. All of the songs on the album bear his unmistakable style that he forged with his previous albums Awake and Dive, with very precise and deliberate instrumental melodies. This album is probably his most energetic yet, with some vocal samples added in, which Scott Hansen hadn’t really used much in the past. While it would be difficult to argue that this album is anything new, it’s probably one of my favourite Tycho projects yet – and with it he has cemented himself at the very top of my exam time playlists.

  1. 22, A Million – Bon Iver

It’s been a loooong time since we got a release from Justin Vernon and it really didn’t disappoint. It’s a difficult listen, which in general is nothing new from Bon Iver – but on this album he seems to explore, and play with, the strange and the uncertain. There is a great existential angst to the subject matter of this record, with Vernon resorting to a lot of religious imagery to try to explain his anxiety about the uncertainty of existence and his use of distorted vocals just adds to the theme. Its aesthetic is very high brow and experimental, and it works beautifully well as a reminder that Bon Iver is one of the best contemporary artists around nowadays.

  1. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

“My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way… it’s a clapback.”

I think I kind of want to be Dev Hynes. His activism for black rights is immensely powerful and it is the overarching theme of this album, the racial context of this album imbues it with so much meaning. It was released during the time when there were weekly/daily occurrences of police brutality towards black teens. It’s a celebration of everyone who is told they’re not good enough and the music does the theme justice – I found there were a lot of similarities between this album and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, both in style and substance. In a year like the one we just had, music like this is so incredibly important in conveying a message.

  1. Coloring Book – Chance The Rapper

Chance’s third mixtape had a lot of expectation placed on it, after the widespread success of the 2013 release of Acid Rap. Since then he has teased an built hype through some excellent features, in fact in my opinion he had the best feature of 2016 (on Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam). The album is filled to the brim with gospel singers and excellent features, but that’s also my biggest issue with the album. The gospel and the features add a great dimension but it hits a point of diminishing returns and I just wish there was a little bit more Chance. There are some spots on the album The best song in my eyes is Same Drugs, which is a beautiful Peter Pan metaphor of two people growing apart. Noticeably on that song there is mainly background gospel and no features.

From what i’ve just said it sounds like I didn’t like this album at all but that’s not the case – it just left me wanting more from Chance because I think he’s one of the most exciting talents in hip hop right now. I can’t wait for his first official album release.

  1. Bottomless Pit – Death Grips

Don’t really know how to describe this one. It’s taken me a good two years to wrap my head around what Death Grips do, and to be honest I think anyone that says they understand their vision is a liar. That being said this project is probably their most cohesive yet, and is what has led me to explore deeper into their discography. Their mix of hip hop with heavy, experimental rock is abrasive and crass but this is probably their most accessible effort yet due to a renewed focus on songcraft instead of shock value.

  1. Lemonade – Beyoncé

Before this album I wasn’t really a Beyoncé fan at all, I thought her songs were disappointing when you took into account her vast amounts of raw talent. This is a complete departure from her usual style of music, and it’s almost as though this album was born out of a desire to make an artistic statement rather than for financial gain which is what always irked me about her music. The overarching theme of marital troubles with Jay-Z (real or not) add a really nice dimension to the album and is very engaging. We see Beyoncé flit between several genres, even including a country song Daddy Lessons which ended up being my favourite on the album. Beyoncé took a lot of risks with this album and for me they all paid off.

  1. Emily’s D+Evolution – Esperanza Spalding

Esperanza Spalding is an upright bassist and singer who gained fame by beating Justin Bieber to the 2011 Best New Music Grammy, but she never seemed to crave this kind of attention and a few years later she took some time off from the music industry to reevaluate her position within it. For her return she came through with a really nice funk album that is highlighted with elements of rock music. Straddling the lines between several genres, Spalding seemed to create this album with the freedom that comes from being out of the limelight. If you haven’t heard this album yet I would warmly recommend it, it’s an incredibly rewarding listen.

  1. Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing – Lost Under Heaven

Born out of the ashes of WU LYF (RIP), Ellery Roberts’s new project has much of the same charm that drew me in the first time round. Ellery’s visceral, raw voice is coupled with that of visual artist Ebony Hoorn and he carries a similar message to the one he did with WU LYF. Blaring anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, anti-everything lyrics is Ellery’s speciality and the mixture of this and grandiose instrumentation makes this a really euphoric listen.

  1. Blank Face LP – Schoolboy Q

This is Schoolboy Q’s first album after beating a horrible addiction to lean and he seems to be on track to become a force in hip hop. This album is almost like a TDE poster child as it is absolutely littered with features but not once does it lose its way – Schoolboy Q is always front and centre of each song without getting overshadowed by anyone. Combining raw and emotional portrayals of a past life with a straightforward and down to earth manner make this a very enjoyable listen start to finish. The focus of this album is very clearly on the rapping which put a lot of pressure on Q to hold the attention for a full hour, but he does so seemingly with ease, with regular tone and tempo shifts that really work in his favour.

  1. The Sun’s Tirade – Isaiah Rashad

Isaiah Rashad’s second album is another stellar output from the TDE label. The Tennessee based rapper’s bars are laced with anxieties regarding maturing and moving past addiction and in doing so he comes across as very human and brutally honest. Fitting with the theme the album ebbs and flows between manic highs and sluggish lows, much like life with addiction does. It is a moving account of facing demons and coming out of the other side better than before.

  1. HOPELESSNESS – ANOHNI

On her fifth album, ANOHNI teamed up with producers Hudson Mohawk and Oneohtrix Point Never to create an absolutely outstanding protest album. As ever, she sings about difficult political themes and challenges things like pop culture’s obsession with image, drone warfare and even the Arab Spring. She paints a bleak picture of despair and struggle, but coupled with bombastic songs and production from HudMo and OPN this album is truly great, and that seems to fit 2016 perfectly.

  1. 99.9% – KAYTRANADA

Kaytranada first made his name as a Soundcloud producer and dance DJ, and his first commercial effort is a statement that shows he’s going to stick around for a while. Specialising in samples and Madlib-style crate digging, Kaytranada’s production is funky and upbeat and enlisting the help of some high-profile collaborators (like Anderson .Paak) makes this a really refreshing experience. He accredits his style to his Haitian roots, and the percussion-heavy beats with help of drummers like Karriem Riggins back this up. A pleasure to listen to all-round.

  1. Telefone – Noname

I first heard of Noname (fka Noname Gypsy) through features with artists like Mick Jenkins and Chance the Rapper, and had been looking forward to this album for a while and in no way did it disappoint. This is a rich, satisfying and intimate hip hop album which documents Noname’s experience growing up as an introvert and finally blossoming into adulthood. The album is framed around transformative phone conversations in her life, with upbeat and playful bars underlining this as the best album by a female rapper this year.

  1. MY WOMAN – Angel Olsen

With her previous three albums Angel Olsen has crafted a powerful identity, her name being synonymous with her voice and her storytelling. On this, her fourth attempt, she has pushed both of these to their highest heights yet. This album is a haunting and beautiful recital of sadness, hope and love. There is a mix of sounds and styles, and there is a constant maze of self-discovery present throughout the songs on the album – even the brightest of songs are twinged with ideas of impermanence, that none of the feelings she is feeling can last forever.

  1. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

I’ve personally never been that enamoured with Radiohead, and consistently found that I preferred their more expansive and airy music. In particular I loved Thom Yorke’s solo project with Atoms for Peace, which is why I was so satisfied with this album – it has a very similar tone. The album is a bit of a grower, it’s a midnight sort of listen and it signals a return to a more conventional type of songcraft . There is a palpable sense of loss which is likely born out of Thom Yorke’s separation from his long time partner – but it would be a disservice to call this a breakup album. It’s lofty, vast, and encompasses all of the things I love about Radiohead. I can’t wait to see them headline Glastonbury.

  1. Yes Lawd! – NxWorries

Anderson .Paak’s meteoric rise seems to know no bounds and album only serves to confirm that. Having teamed up with producer Knxwledge this is a beat tape first and foremost, with all of the songs hovering around the 3-minute mark. Paak has seemingly mastered his vocal range and uses it to full effect on this album, all the while maintaining an infectiously upbeat mood. The production by Knxwledge is immaculate, channeling greats like Dilla and Madlib.

Livvin’ is probably the epitome of the feeling of this album, which is basically an exclamation of the triumphs in .Paak’s recent history. Hopefully he can keep going from strength to strength.  

  1. In My Mind – BJ The Chicago Kid

This is a modern update on Chicago soul, and BJ delivers a beautifully tender and soulful approach to the classic genre. Its lyrics are very on the nose about sexual experiences, but the way BJ sings them makes them is absolutely perfect. He excels at his brand of love song, and the only time where this album falls a bit flat is when he strays from this concept. The features he enlists on this album are also excellent, with appearances from Kendrick, Chance and Big KRIT complementing his voice expertly.

  1. Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino

It’s been a great year for Donald Glover – his new show Atlanta landed him a Best Comedy Actor Golden Glob, and he’s been cast as the young Lando Calrissian in the forthcoming Star Wars movie. I’ve loved him as an actor for a while but I have never been particularly enamoured with his rapping. It piqued my interest when I heard that he had ditch rapping for more of a funk sound and this is easily my favourite project of his so far. The production is majestic, Glover’s singing is better than ever and this project is so unique and unexpected that I’m struggling to find things to compare it to. I have to say that Redbone is up there as one of my favourite songs of this year – it is so smooth and serene that I could listen to it on a loop for hours.

  1. Malibu – Anderson .Paak

I mentioned earlier how good a year Anderson .Paak has had, and this is the centrepiece of his many successes. Behind his success there is a difficult story (as explained on the opener The Birds) – his mother was a farmer from South Korea and his father was an Air Force mechanic that was imprisoned for beating the former. Mixed in with the fresh and new sounds of Anderson .Paak are several old heads, including features from Schoolboy Q, Rapsody, The Game and Talib Kweli. This is another important, empowering album with the overarching message being that anyone can achieve anything, regardless of where you’ve started or what colour your skin is.

  1. A Seat at the Table – Solange

Most of the time the significance of an album doesn’t really hit me until the third or fourth listen through, but with this album I realised about halfway through about its importance in the world today. Specifically on Interlude: Tina Taught Me where we hear Solange’s (& Beyoncé’s) mother talk about her pride in her culture and heritage and seems to get very emotional about the fact that that is often not accepted by other cultures. This seamlessly flows into the incedibly powerful Don’t Touch My Hair which epitomises the message that this album tries to convey. It is an incredibly meaningful account of black womanhood in modern America, and is complemented by some beautiful singing and excellent production.

  1. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

The birth of this album was a massive rollercoaster with delays, leaks, revisions and additions hampering it on its way. When it did come out, it ended up being the most perfect description of Kanye you could get. It’s bold, erratic, a bit bonkers and overall a great experience from start to finish. It seems as though this is the artistic vision that Kanye has wanted to put forward for a while now, and his ‘unique’ way of putting it out into the world seems to fit that theory. There is a good mix between the larger-than-life Yeezus Kanye and the introspective and damaged My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye. Some of Kanye’s best songs in my opinion are on this album – Ultralight Beam’s production is some of the best that Kanye has done, along with an incredible Chance the Rapper feature (as mentioned earlier, my favourite feature of the year). Real Friends is another that I am enamored with – Kanye is vulnerable, and laments his failures as a friend and as a person in a real and relatable way.

Since then, Kanye has cancelled shows and tours and has been hospitalised following a manic depressive episode. I hope he can stay stable in the future and that we get to hear more of his vision, because as much shit as he says and does, he really is a fantastic talent.

“Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”

  1. Run The Jewels 3 – Run The Jewels

A surprise 2016 release that was initially slated for early 2017 but was brought forward and released as “A CHRISTMAS F***ING MIRACLE.” I’m really glad it was released early because it fit the theme of 2016 excellently, RTJ have become known for their defiant and political style and of course this album is no different. The third album in the RTJ series is a culmination of what made the previous two so great. They managed to maintain their sound while subtly developing it – yet this album is the most subtle and polished. Killer Mike is ridiculously good as ever, and El-P’s production is better than it has ever been. It’s a protest album with several riot anthems that may or may not be directed towards the Mango Mussolini that was inaugurated just a few days ago.

  1. untitled unmastered. – Kendrick Lamar

It’s a bit unfair really isn’t it. An album of 8 throwaways that weren’t quite good enough to fit into last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, is still better than most of the music that has come out in this year. While it is obvious that a lot of the tracks on this EP are unfinished that doesn’t diminish the quality of this product at all. The songs are in a very similar vein to the songs on TPAB, however Kendrick has to be commended because I do agree with the fact that none of these songs would have added much to last year’s album. As a standalone project it is excellent, with catchy hooks and silky instrumentals (as ever) from people like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. It’s going to be interesting to see what Kendrick can do from here, it seems like everything he touches turns to gold.

  1. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service – A Tribe Called Quest

18 years in the making, the swan song of the alternative hip hop pioneers was so much more than I thought it could ever be. I have to confess when I heard that there was a new ATCQ album in the works I was a bit sceptical. Halfway through the first song my doubts were blown out of the water – the opener The Space Program sets the tone by making clear that this isn’t a 1994 project that’s 20 years late, but is a refreshingly current attempt. The tragic death of MC Phife Dawg was covered by the fact that the band had recorded all of his vocals at Q-Tip’s studio earlier in the year, and you would never know that he wasn’t there.

This is another album on this is list that is incredibly timely. The songs are again very political, and We The People is the best example of this which clearly references the various unrests of 2016 – “All you black folks you must go/All you Mexicans you must go.” Even if they do get a bit blunt by naming one of the songs The Donald, overall it’s a very nuanced and effective commentary on the state of the world compared to how it was in ATCQ’s heyday.

  1. Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown

This album genuinely transcends explanation, it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before. If I were to compare it to something on this list I would say that the closest other thing is Bottomless Pit but even that isn’t really close. The beats are gritty and dark, and Danny’s abrasive, shrill voice over the top of it just works. I’m struggling to explain why it works but it just does, to tremendous effect. It’s a wild ride that documents the ups and downs of drug addiction, some songs are blurry and fuzzy and then there are others that almost sound like Danny is driving himself up into a fit. There isn’t a song on this album that I don’t like, but Ain’t it Funny is the standout track for me. The beat is outrageous and it doesn’t really make sense, the way Danny sings offbeat and just plays with the rhythm is so engaging and fun. There is also Really Doe which in my view is the best posse track of the year (however the Black Hippy THat Part remix runs it close). The track has Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt bouncing off each other perfectly as though it’s all they’ve been doing for years.

I’m not really sure where Danny Brown is going to go next but he’s one of the few artists where I trust his vision, and I really look forward to whatever he can bring out next.

     2. Blackstar – David Bowie

If I ordered this list to take historical significance into account then this would be a no-brainer at the number 1 slot. David Bowie’s last album before he lost his battle with cancer is the most perfect way he could have said goodbye. I thought it was an incredible album soon after it came out, as its songcraft and instrumentation is beautifully dark and sombre. However when Bowie died, the album took on a whole new shape and added countless layers of complexity and imagery. Even though it has transpired that Bowie may not have necessarily known that he was  dying during the recording process, the idea that Bowie immortalised his views about death and mourning shortly before his own passing is so beautiful to me.

Lazarus is the key song on the album, it’s a superbly artistic statement – condensing the entire human narrative of birth, life and death into one single song that was released three days before his untimely death.

Doesn’t get much more Bowie than that.

“Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man sees his black star
He knows his time, his time has come”  – Elvis Presley

  1. Blonde – Frank Ocean

The hype around Frank Ocean had reached a boiling point, after the widespread success of his 2012 abum Channel Orange he just disappeared. Shortly after that release he came out on the internet, saying that his first love was a man. After that, he was gone. There was endless speculation and Channel Orange had taken on a sort of cult-like status until Frank posted on his  Tumblr #ALBUM3 #JULY2015 #BOYSDONTCRY. July 2015 came and went and no sign of Frank, apart from the occasional feature on Odd Future tracks. His only 2016 feature was on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, as an add-on track to Wolves.

More and more speculation built up with photos and teases from people close to Frank, suggesting his third album Boys Don’t Cry would release in July 2016. Alas, no album. Yet early in August a cryptic livestream popped up which showed people woodworking in a whitewashed warehouse and the hype machine hit max.

On 19th August, finally, Frank released a visual album called Endless (which is also fantastic and well worth a listen/watch). But was this the full album? This wasn’t called Boys Don’t Cry? What?

The day later, 20th August, Blonde was released and an accompanying magazine called Boys Don’t Cry was announced.

And it is a masterpiece. I won’t have enough space here to convey just how much I love this album but I’ll give it a go. Compared to the relatively expansive and elaborate production on Channel Orange, Blonde is very minimal and stripped back. There is a very sparse use of percussion on the whole project, but where it does appear it adds a beautiful dimension – purely because of its absence previously. When Frank’s voice breaks through it’s almost as though the relative quietness and peace shines a spotlight on him and his words.

There isn’t a song on this album that I would remove or even change, every single word and note seems to have been placed very deliberately, which may explain the long drawn out release process that this album went through. The album is noticeably devoid of standalone bangers, unlike Channel Orange that had songs like Thinkin Bout You and Pyramids, but even then I think this is endlessly more listenable because of the different layers that you can unpick with every listen. Even Ivy, the song that is closest to being like those two, isn’t as massive or as instantly catchy, but is carried amazingly by only Frank’s voice and two guitar tracks. It’s probably the best example of the themes present on the album – a sort of nostalgic teenage heartbreak seen through reminiscing eyes – ‘I ain’t a kid no more/We’ll never be those kids again.’

This is easily my most played album of this year, and after hearing it for several months my favourite song changed almost after every listen – it flitted from Ivy to Nights to White Ferrari to Self Control to Seigfried. It’s a testament to how well put together the album is that I even enjoy listening to the (often criticised) interludes because they set up the following song really nicely. Be Yourself features a phone conversation from Frank’s mother saying that he shouldn’t rely on drugs or alcohol to be himself, and then in the next song Solo Frank sings about taking tabs of acid to be able to unravel himself and be ‘solo.’ Facebook Story features SebastiAn who talks about a relationship that broke up over his refusal to get involved with Facebook, and it flows into a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Close To You, which is heavily distorted and mechanical sounding – almost as though he’s trying to get close to someone but can’t break through the virtual barrier.

Overall, this album definitely worth the wait. I hope the next project comes a bit sooner but even if it takes another four years I’d be happy if the overall quality stays like this.

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Album Review – ‘IV’ by BADBADNOTGOOD

I’ve talked in the past about how jazz as a genre constantly moves in cycles (to use Q-Tip’s language), and BADBADNOTGOOD are perhaps one of the figureheads of the most recent revival – earlier albums featured reformulated covers of hip-hop classics such as Slum Village’s ‘Fall in Love’, as well as fresher reimaginings coming in the form of, for example, Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Earl’. They even dabbled in some shoe-gaze in covering My Bloody ValentineSuch albums also displayed a sort of humour and style that represented the fresh-faced persona of a trio who were barely entering adulthood.

IV however ditches the pig masks, cereal-eating, lion mascot dancing, Lil B shoutouts, and even the monochrome artwork used on past albums. It’s a maturation, a foot in the same river as Kamasi Washington (and ergo Kendrick Lamar), best represented by the introduction of Leland Whittey as a full-time member of the band – returning after a fantastic feature on III‘s ‘Confessions’, Whittey helps open the album with a solo on the electronica-infused ‘And That Too’, then taking centre-stage on the title-track which sounds as if it could have been pulled directly from To Pimp a Butterfly. His highlight is the high-energy battle with Arcade Fire contributor Colin Stetson, trading frantic and raspy saxophone lines back and forth in ‘Confessions II’:

The album also features a heavier amount of collaboration – Colin Stetson already mentioned, Kayranada lends his own sub-genre melting-pot style to ‘Lavender’ by providing buzzing synthesiers to the psychedelic and groove heavy journey, a sound reminiscent of Karreim Riggins‘ debut effort. Walking further down this road, Mick Jenkins perhaps shows BADBADNOTGOOD’s potential in the hip-hop genre when they’re not tied down to Ghostface Killah‘s nostalgia on previous album Sour Soul this is best seen in Alexander Sowinski’s drumming which is in this track is one-hundred times preferred to a drum machine. Again, following in similar veins as Washington and indeed Terrace Martin and Robert GlasperCharlotte Day Wilson‘s vocals provide a smooth-jazz atmosphere on ‘In Your Eyes’.

Perhaps the best feature is of Future Islands’ frontman Samuel Herring on ‘Time Moves Slow’, in essence a solemn follow up to the band’s reinterpretation of ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’. Chester Hansen’s bass provides the engine for the track, whilst Sowinski once again spices up what could have been a very simple 16-beat drum loop, and adding Matthew Tavares’ organ-synth, it provides perfect backing for the wavering and crumbling vocals of Herring as he croons “running away is easy // it’s the leaving that’s hard”.

Amongst all of this however, it should be noted that it doesn’t feel like there’s a massive progression in sound – at the close of the BADBADNOTGOOD’s debut album, Sowinski is asked what he thinks of John Coltrane‘s widely-regarded seminal jazz album Giant Steps – he answers:

 “Fuck that shit, everyone’s played it, it’s 50 years old, it sounds like crap, write a new song, and stop playing that God damn song. I don’t care if you can fucking modulate it and change shit up, you can play it in seven, you can play it in nine: it’s fucking boring. That’s what I think about Giant Steps”.

There’s no such moment, no such feeling with this album – the band has grown up, but perhaps too much. If the title-track did not have Whittey’s saxophone on it it would have fitted in very neatly on previous albums with Tavares’ electric piano making light work of (rather impressive, it should be said) solos, and the strings featured in ‘In Your Eyes’ felt very similar to those employed on III. They have explored new ground in terms of their own personal musical journeys, but on the grand stage of the genre and music as a whole, this album appears to hold less weight. Closing track ‘Cashmere’ perhaps encapsulates these sentiments well – the quartet are obviously talented, there’s no doubting that, and Leland Whittey’s addition is a very welcome change, but it doesn’t feel like an exciting and fresh take on the genre. Yes, that’s a lot to expect from a band, but it’s the reputation that BADBADNOTGOOD have built for themselves, and so we should not be hasty to be disappointed with this effort.

//tools.applemusic.com/embed/v1/album/1112802198?country=us

This article was written by Mo Hafeez.

Album Review – ‘Blackstar’ by David Bowie

By Mo Hafeez

“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”

I’d already planned what I was going to say about this album before I heard the news of Bowie’s passing, and I promised myself that it wouldn’t colour my opinions of the record, but when there’s an opening line like that (from second single ‘Lazarus’, released two days before his death), it’s obvious that it was indeed planned.

Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 01.37.16 Long-time producer and occasional collaborator Tony Visconti reveals Bowie’s intent

 

Blackstar is the twenty-fifth (!) studio album released by David Bowie, and like many of his previous records, it’s filled with experimental and compelling instrumentals to go along with melancholy vocals and thought-provoking lyrics (especially now we have the unfortunate context of the album).

Also, like past releases again, it’s quite a change from what we’ve heard from Bowie previously – this is not a pop album, that’s for sure, but then again it’s not entirely unique. You hear shades of his former style, and you hear his influences too. There’s definite hints of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in there, the saxophone taking the key instrumental position, which may or may not take you back to Bowie’s Pin Ups,  though this time he’s not doing the playing as Donny McCaslin takes that role instead. The horns here though are not used for energy per se, but rather instead create quite creepy and unsettling phrases.

The opening title-track, with a video containing symbolisms on symbolisms of death, features the distinct voice but in an almost weary and whimpering-like fashion, the percussion menacingly backing up with snare rolls. And then, a genre-switch midway through the track to a more standard Western feeling, Bowie’s chants of “I’m a blackstar” intermittently breaking the initially uplifting chords, before the song moulds slowly back into its initial theme, closing with a droning and eclectic crescendo, a scampering flute at the centre.  The lyrical content is hard to decipher, though McCaslin has rather strangely suggested that the song was written about the rise of ISIS – it would seem to fit the theme well if Bowie did write it regarding himself, but nevertheless:

“Something happened on the day he died,
spirit rose a metre and stepped aside,
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried,
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”

‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ and ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ were re-recorded for this release, the former following on from ‘Blackstar’ very nicely, the saxophone playing a much more manic role throughout the song whilst a more standard kit-beat provides the backbone. The latter’s drumbeat reminded me of Earthling‘s ‘Little Wonder’, and the rest of the instrumentation catches up with this comparison towards the end when the distortion is laid on thick, the line “The clinic called, the X-ray’s fine” perhaps taking on more significant meaning in light of Bowie’s death.

The metaphysical nature of the lyrics don’t stop there, the track ‘Girl Loves Me’, in which the snare provides a militaristic backing to Bowie’s singing (containing words in a language taken from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange) – he yells “Where the fuck did Monday go?” repeatedly, but with no answer, and we are left with a sinister feeling that Bowie mourns the passing of time and indeed his own death (Bowie, of course, passing yesterday, on a Monday).

The album closes with ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, lyrically the most direct song on the album – it almost feels like his own obituary as he opens with “I know something is very wrong, the pulse returns the prodigal son”, as he samples his own song ‘A Career in a New Town”, a final hark back to his past, he tells us this is the last he has to offer, that he has given as much as he can,  and that he perhaps could not physically give anything more musically. Instrumentally though, it’s not a sad goodbye note, it’s warm, hopeful even.

I won’t be silly and say that the album brought me to tears during my most recent listen, but it definitely felt a little bit more sombre and a little bit more significant, that’s for sure – I paused for a moment of reflection when the organ faded away and just thought. I thought of Bowie’s legacy, and thought how this was a truly brilliant close to his life and career, aware of his past, but not overly nostalgic.

May you rest in peace David Bowie.

What we’re listening to (#18): ‘6 Feet Beneath the Moon’ by King Krule

By Mo Hafeez

I recently reviewed Archy Marhsall’s latest effort, A New Place 2 Drown – give it a read here 

King Krule a.k.a. Zoo Kid a.k.a Edgar the Beatmaker a.k.a. DJ JD Sports and so on and so forth – Archy Marshall is no stranger to music, treading the fine line between multiple genres, from jazz, punk, and hip-hop, to more obscure post-punk and new-wave. Under the King Krule moniker, he’s paid more attention to the former three.

Anyone who’s friends with me on Facebook will know that the main album that I’ve been listening to over the past week or so is ‘6 Feet Beneath the Moon’, King Krule’s debut full-length album released in 2013 – in actuality, what I’ve been listening to is more of a compilation album, as the majority of the tracks on the record have been featured on past EPs.

Recording all tracks before he even reached the age of 20, what was surprising was the gravel and gruffness in his voice, a kind of baritone rife with emotion, leading to some fantastic moments of intensity on the album. His voice bites and stings, its detuned nature gripping to listen to.

Musically, the album is dripping with reverb, both on his voice and his guitar, and the soundscape in general feels barren , not overly crowded by unnecessary features. Spacious drumming and/or drum loops back him up, echoing around the room, giving an intimate feeling with its minimalistic nature.

New tracks on the album include ‘Baby Blue’, a dreary ballad featuring Marshall singing to a lover who does not have mutual feelings for him, and though it treads around cliche territory lyrically, his drawl somehow gives the words some deeper meaning, the way they’re awkwardly pushed out. Instrumentation is kept basic, smooth jazz-guitar picking the main focus, laid on top of an almost trap-inspired drum beat.

‘Easy Easy’ features even less instrumentation, with just Marshall and his guitar telling a story of a man chased by the police with no escape from them and indeed no escape from his daily life – again, it treads around cliche territory lyrically, but again it’s saved by vocal delivery that adds deeper more emotional meaning, especially on the choruses where he almost loses his pitching. It should be noted that live versions feature some excellent drumming, and an added guitar and bass guitar.

‘Out Getting Ribs’ was re-recorded for this album, released previously under his Zoo Kid moniker – however, in my opinion the song in fact feels much better in the original recording rather than the studio recording, the echoey screams of “Don’t break away// I’ll waste away” having a much greater impact than when they’re just sang, and the emotional “I’m sorry” which splits the song also adds to it. Again, just a reverb-laden guitar backs up Marshall in this song he wrote when he was just 15.

More fast-tempo songs on the album include ‘A Lizard State’, lyrically perhaps a weaker song but instrumentally exciting, horns providing excellent backing to Marshall’s band, and giving an extremely soulful and jazzy solo here and there too. On ‘Neptune Estate’ and ‘The Noose of Jah City’ you can hear his early forays into hip-hop and rapping, the delivery on some lines almost spoken-word esque.

If the single he released prior to the release of this album, ‘Rock Bottom’, had replaced one of the weaker songs on the album, he perhaps would have captivated for the entire 52 minute experience, and he perhaps would be experiencing greater recognition today – either way though, this album is a fantastic listen.

Bebop: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and the ‘Beat Generation’

Bebop is a style of jazz music that preceded the swing era of America and is the foundation of modern jazz music as it’s known today. Known as ‘bop’, it became the successor of swing music, becoming most prominent in the late 1940s. Played in much smaller groups, often with only 2 or 3 front soloists and a rhythm section, there was much more flexibility within the bands as well as the music itself, more so than heard before.

The pioneer of this music was saxophonist Charlie Parker, who carried the nickname ‘Bird’.  Parker was born in Kansas City, in 1920. During the 1920s and ‘30s Kansas City was a hub for jazz musicians, with swing music being the centre of attention. Parker would have been heavily influenced by the music scene there, which would set a precedent for his future music. At the age of 11 his mother bought him his first saxophone, but he was no natural. He suffered setbacks in his earlier years; he was kicked out of his school band at the age of 14, as well as being embarrassed at a jam session aged 15, when the drummer of Count Bassy’s orchestra, Jo Jones, threw a cymbal at him for playing in the wrong key. It was shortly after this period that Parker realized the complexities of jazz, resulting in his practice becoming constructive and disciplined, playing up to 15 hours a day for 4 years. Yet the early exposure Parker had to such great musicians gave him an aspiration, letting him develop a subsequent motivation to match.

Parker moved to New York with little money and few plans but with hopes to develop his music further.  Parker’s main influence in New York was Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpet player, who was well versed in jazz and the harmonic completions that went with it.  They would be huge influences on each other’s playing, and in the first few years after they met, they played together constantly.

The Musicians’ Union recording ban between 1942 and 1944 meant that the duo could not record their music. Hence, a lot of early bebop developments were missed, but when the ban was lifted, bebop music exploded into the mainstream. Bebop records sold in copious quantities, with one of the most influential recordings of the time done by Parker, called Ko-Ko. It was based on Cherokee, a standard written by Ray Noble, and it is regarded as being typical of the bebop style.

Ko-Ko was released in 1945, and featured Parker on alto saxophone, Miles Davis on Trumpet, Charlie Russell on double bass and Max Roach on the drums. Dizzy Gillespie took the place of Bud Powell on piano. The tempo was blistering, the piece relentless throughout. Though the chords used were simply and were based off classic swing music progressions, the solos within were highly complex and chromatic. The rhythms contain other hints of swing music, but it’s clear in the recordings that the rhythms and timing were in fact much more unpredictable – in the recording it can be heard that Parker’s rhythmic stresses, and even the rhythm itself, is very unpredictable, with Parker fragmenting each phrase he plays almost to allow the listener to absorb the virtuosic lines produced.

Ko-Ko is very good example of bebop in its rawest form. Though very technical and exciting, sometimes its musicality was questioned. It had many critics, some of them being very prominent musicians, notably Louis Armstrong. It was said bebop was too self-indulgent with no real tune, resulting in the listeners not being able to latch onto any themes from the music. Ko-Ko is a prime example of this – although based on Noble’s Cherokee, it’s very hard to hear the main theme, often as the lines are so explosive and diverse that when it does come around, it’s hard to recognize it as a re-worked tune, sounding more like a continuation of an endless solo than the actual theme of the song. Even so, Ko-Ko was a huge success and put Parker on the map as a national star.

Parker’s unpredictable, fast paced and intricate music was reflected in his lifestyle. It was often said Parker had three things that made up his life; his music, his family (he married 3 times in total, with 4 kids) and his drugs. All of these aspects developed including, most crucially, his drug abuse. Heroin addiction had become a full time engagement for Parker, resulting in him turning up late for gigs, if at all, as well as financial troubles. Drug abuse and heavy drinking were a common theme of the jazz world at the time, with other bebop innovators such as Thelonious Monk and Fats Navarro having similar issues.  The authorities cracked down on the problem, and in the early 1950’s Parker’s Cabaret Card was revoked, meaning he was unable to play in the clubs of New York. This resulted in less money for Parker, and he subsequently had to travel the continent on tour, putting strains on his family life and increasing his dependence on drugs.

The high profile cases of drug addiction in the Bebop world meant the music was starting to gain an image, the image of high energy, fast paced, talented personalities living a life which seemed free from all worries of the real world. This image became just as important as the music. Not only was the music giving the people of America a soundtrack to their lives, but it was also giving them a lifestyle to aspire to. Musicians such as Parker were seen as more than entertainers, they were seen as intellectuals and trendsetters, leading the way for other artists and academics of the time do the same thing. A prime example of this is a group of writers known as the ‘Beat Generation’. The name was given by writer and poet Jack Kerouac, a key figure in the group. Kerouac specifically states bebop, and Parker in particular, as the main influences on his life and works.

kerouac-mugshot-

Kerouac’s Navy mugshot – Public Domain (US Archives)

 Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922, Kerouac grew up in a middle class family, writing from an early age. He gained a football scholarship to Columbia University where he studied literature and was first introduced to the other members of the movement, such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Being ‘beat’ meant you didn’t conform to conservative social convention, questioning the sexual, religious and political taboos of the day, using drugs frequently, especially LSD, which also influenced their actions. The group gained widespread acclaim after the release and subsequent success Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’.

Their lifestyle ran parallel with Parker’s. They were based in New York in the ’50s when bebop and Parker were at their peak. Kerouac’s writing was affected by the music just as much as his lifestyle. His most famous and celebrated book ‘On the Road’ sums up and combines these very well. The book is a semi-autobiographical depiction of the adventures of Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (based on his friend Neil Cassady) going coast to coast across America. The pair took part in constant drug abuse; drinking and womanizing; absorbing every sight and sound the country had to offer. Extracts like the one below summarize their lifestyle well:

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.” 

Kerouac wrote the majority of his books in spontaneous prose, a refined and developed stream of consciousness. It lays down a trail of undisturbed thoughts, one leading on to the next, with little use of punctuation. Kerouac describes it as ‘the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between out blown phrases)’. Spontaneous prose was developed so that the words on the page were the writer’s purest thoughts; Kerouac never went back over his words, often writing his books in a number of weeks. The intense periods of writing meant that the technique had to be extensively practiced, so Kerouac kept multiple diaries and wrote notes constantly to try and improve. It becomes quite clear that the writing style has many similarities to an improvised Parker solo; spontaneous, relentless and full of poetic passages. Phrases were well thought out, allowing breathing space for the reader to take in the words on the page, with each passage being based around one key idea.

This style is most apparent in one of Kerouac’s earlier books, The Subterraneans. The book, again in spontaneous prose, describes a group of intellects – the Subterraneans – with the focus of the book on the relationship between Leo Percepied (based on Jack Kerouac) and Mardou Fox (based on Alene Lee). The book illuminates the goings on of the beat generation in their everyday lives, especially Kerouac, and explicitly describes the group’s indifferences to the formalities of society. The group is described on the first page of the book by Adam Moorad (Allen Ginsberg) as being:

‘Hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are all intellectual as hell and know all about the pound, without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, very Christlike’.

The quote sums up the movement very eloquently, again emphasizing the lack of conformity to social standard. They perceived themselves to have superior intelligence over most people; yet they do not pursue a lavish life. Their own company seemed sufficient enough, sometime seeming isolated from the outside world as a result of their superior understanding. The relationship itself between Mardou and Leo is unconventional, with Mardou being African American and much younger then Leo. Her unstable mental state makes the reader question their relationship, as does Leo’s inability to fully commit. The group’s heavy drug taking and alcohol intake, along with their need for culture, whether it be bebop or literature, helps further separate the group from the society of the time.

Kerouac continued to be inspired by the jazz music and characteristics of the music. ‘Mexico City Blues’ is a set of 242 verses of poetry based on jazz rhythms, with the last 4 verses fittingly dedicated to Parker himself. Kerouac describes the moment when the two crossed paths, with Parker having a profound effect on Kerouac. It is described early on in The Subterraneans, when Mardou and Leo are in ‘Red Drum’, the local Jazz joint, where Charlie Parker is playing:

“Returning to the Red Drum for sets, to hear Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eyes looking to search if really I was that great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my faults and ambitions or remembered me from the other night clubs and other coasts, other Chicagos”.

Kerouac and Parker both followed the same fate and both died before their time, age 47 and 34 respectively. Parker’s influence led the way for the fast paced life style, setting the bar for other artists of the day. It’s clear how much Parker’s music affected Kerouac, and Kerouac would not have been the only one who felt that way.  Both men represent a generation, icons in their own right, living complex, curious, non-stop lives whilst working harder than anyone else to push the boundaries of their respective fields in equally unconventional ways. It was the bebop beat of Parker’s horn which would lead the way, giving the next generation a freedom which would arguably never be matched.

This article was written by Henry Weekes

Album Review – ‘Sour Soul’ by BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah

BADBADNOTGOOD have made leaps and bounds since coming together in 2010. The Toronto jazz trio first gained popularity after their ‘Odd Future Session’ videos, which eventually caught the attention of artists like Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean. Three albums in before this latest release, they’ve aptly shown their flair for reinterpreting jazz, their ability to build up tracks before crashing down in waves of synths, basses and eclectic drums is one rarely seen or felt in the genre.

However, if you’re looking for that kind of stuff, Sour Soul won’t please you. That’s my main criticism, if you could even call it that, since it’s clear that’s not what they’re going for with this album. They’re meant to be providing a nostalgic backbone for Ghostface Killah (of Wu-Tang fame) and his aggressive deliveries, they’re meant to be in the background whilst seasoned veteran Ghostface Killah steals the show, but it simply isn’t the case. BADBADNOTGOOD shines extremely bright on this album, probably even brighter than Ghostface himself, who, although is impressive, is not up to form when compared to the featured rappers on the album.

It’s almost as if Ghostface doesn’t fully go for it until he’s got another MC to challenge him on the track – Danny Brown continues his hot streak on ‘Six Degrees’, his comic rapping style providing a strange juxtaposition that works well, behind a guitar led riff which has been layered with reverb and subtle drum changes adding changes of pace throughout the song. MF Doom steals the show on ‘Ray Gun’, a lyrical standoff between two talented rappers as BADBADNOTGOOD play a jazz-funk infused lounge backing track behind it all – the organ could have been a grating addition, but it’s placed well within the production itself by producer Frank Dukes, resulting in a backing track that works well in giving that superhero show vibe that the pair use in their lyrics often.

Whilst featuring musicians do a great job (Thomas Brenneck’s slide guitar addition to ‘Gunshowers’ stuck out to me in particular), the instrumentals, albeit strangely placed within the album, show what BADBADNOTGOOD can do (though not to the extent we hear on their previous album) – brass heavy ‘Experience’ closes out the album smoothly, the strings coming to the fore towards the end, and the percussion is tight yet dynamic enough to show you that the band has flair.

Some may be disappointed with this album, perhaps simply due to extremely high expectations, but BADBADNOTGOOD have managed to blur the lines between genres convincingly once again whilst still maintaining their signature sound, the punchy drums the driving force throughout the album. This album may have suffered had it not been for the slew of featured rappers, but Ghostface  Killah gives just enough to makes us want more, the narrative and pop-culture references still a plenty.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez

BADBADNOTGOOD: the continuing story of jazz and hip-hop

Even though hip-hop’s been dated roughly back to the late 70s with artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and The Sugarhill Gang, some have traced the relationship with the two genres as far back as the early 20s, with artists like Louis Armstrong being proclaimed as pioneers. Everyone who knows that hip-hop and jazz go together like paint and a brush will also know that it’s kind of a one way street – you can take the hip-hop out of jazz, but you can’t take the jazz out of hip-hop, with seminal artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Eric B. and Rakim sampling prolifically from rare and well-known records alike, putting a brand new spin on them.

‘Life’ by Proof samples ’73 Touches’ by Miles Davis

In more recent times, Jazz has become a museum genre of such, a genre that wasn’t gradually changing but instead becoming more and more aged. In some respects, it’s not even because it’s becoming less and less popular, but it’s because artists are struggling to invent, shape, and formulate new strands of jazz – hence, we have fallen into a ‘jazz revival’ period where records have circumnavigated the whole genre, returning to artists like Jelly Roll Morton for inspiration and ideas alike. The only trouble is, despite having revitalized the genre, it hasn’t attracted a new audience.

This isn’t even a new occurrence – during the 1940s, artists had already begun the process, trying to recreate the work of Red Nichols, a bandmate of the Dorsey Brothers in the popular jazz group The California Ramblers. That kind of mentality, which though undoubtedly has produced some great music in the vein of greats like John Coltrane, has left me wondering whether the genre is stuck in its tracks, spending too long re-examining its own works rather than pushing forward and exploring new territory. The thought of revivalists, though well-meant, has kind of given the impression that jazz is now an art for the sake of art – this kind of image isn’t helped by the fact that often times prominent advocates of jazz are seen to be stuck-up and pretentious. The only ‘new’ music of the genre in these kinds of cycles is avant-garde compositions, which often times are unlistenable too and lose the feeling of jazz by making you feel overly uncomfortable (though, that might be what they’re aiming for).

Red Nichols and his Five Pennies

Of course, the aforementioned is a sweeping claim to make, and not all hope is lost to those who crave jazz with a twist – whether artists like The Jazzual Suspects are producing music in an attempt to try and engage younger listeners, or whether they’re doing it just for the love of music is beyond my knowledge, but the music such bands produce is not to be ignored.

More recently, I was reminded by a good friend of the band BADBADNOTGOOD (BBNG). BBNG are a Toronto-based ‘post-jazz’ band who are known for their raucous gigs around America. Moshing wasn’t a regular occurrence at jazz-based gigs, but these guys are making it happen with renditions of various hip-hop tracks, old and new alike. The band consists of Matthew Tavares, Alexander Sowinski, and Chester Hansen, and their fame started after they uploaded an 8-minute YouTube tribute to Odd Future, an artist they mutually enjoyed.

The Odd Future Sessions – Part 1

They actually performed a similar piece as a college assignment, but their tutors apparently disregarded the piece and said it lacked “musical merit”. I’m not sure whether it was this that caused them to drop out of school and pursue music or if it was something else, but I’m glad that they decided to build their own studio in a rented garage.

They caught the attention of Tyler, the Creator though, who proclaimed “I Love Jazz, This Is Fucking Sick! Dave Brubrek Trio Swag” in a tweet. This lead to a collaboration between the band and the California rapper, and served as a launch-pad to work with other artists like Frank Ocean, who they backed during a tour, and Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang fame.

Between the use of trap beats, strange samples, ethereal synthesisers, and the occasional bottle blowing improv-solo, it really is an interesting listen. I honestly don’t feel uncomfortable in grouping them together with people like ?uestlove, Q-tip, J-Dilla, and Nujabes – I get that they’re not quite at the stature of such artists, but there’s little doubt in my mind that if they continue doing what they’re doing, they’ll be there – it’s always a good sign when you enjoy a band’s original music rather than their faithfully re-imagined and beautifully crafted covers of Kanye West, MF DOOM, and even My Bloody Valentine.

BADBADNOTGOOD and Ghostface Killah in ‘Gunshowers’

This article was written by Mo Hafeez