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Monday, March 30, 2015

Two more of my unofficial music videos (Raekwon and Cybotron)

I'm back with two more of my unofficial fan music videos I made in my spare time.


The first is for the Raekwon track "House of Flying Daggers" from the 2009 album Only Built 4 Cuban Link... Pt. II. It also features production by J Dilla and guest verses from Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, GZA, and Method Man.

The video was edited from various martial arts films, many of them made by the Shaw Brothers.





Next, we have a video I made for the classic electro track "Clear" by Juan Atkins under his Cybotron alias.





Hope you enjoy them!


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Analysis of Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well (1960)



"It's not easy hating evil, you have to stoke your own fury until you become evil yourself."


I've been a huge fan of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa for over a decade now and I've seen a large majority of his films. I had seen almost all the ones usually considered his major works, except for The Bad Sleep Well (Japanese title: Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru), but I rectified this omission the other day.





Released in 1960, it was Kurosawa's twentieth film. Unlike the historical epics that many know him for, this was set in contemporary Japanese society.

This was the first movie made by Kurosawa's independent production company (although their logo still appears at the beginning of the credits), starting a new era of autonomy. He wrote the screenplay along with Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Eijiro Hisaita. The score was written by Masaru Sato.

Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune stars at Itakura (although you think his name is Nishi at the beginning of the film). He is not portraying a showy character full of bravado and anger as he often does, but he still gives an excellent performance.






Itakura is a man whose father was forced to commit suicide by a corrupt Japanese company he worked for in order to keep company secrets hidden. He then changes his identity and marries Yoshiko Iwabuchi, the daughter of the Vice President of the company. He also becomes Iwabuchi's right hand man as his secretary, doing all this in order to root out corporation's corruption.

Kurosawa uses this plot to ask moral questions. Mifune's character has to commit several crimes in order to further his plan for revenge. Is he justified in doing what he does? Do his ends justify his means? The film doesn't seem to give an answer either way, but rather forces the audience to contemplate these questions.

As with all Kurosawa films, this has some amazing cinematography. It was shot in black and white using a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Youtube channel "Every Frame a Painting" by Tony Zhou pointed out that Kurosawa loves to shoot groups of people, and this helps make his films visually dynamic. This is definitely shown off in The Bad Sleep Well.






There are many shots throughout the film of large groups, such as the journalists at the opening wedding scene. The shots usually have everyone in focus, so there is a lot going on in them.











I really love this symmetrical shot with six people at the very beginning.




This also relates to Kurosawa's masterful use of depth of field. Often, something is going on in both the foreground and the background. A perfect example is the scene where Shirai, the chief of contracts at Public Corporation, has just been accused of stealing from the company. He goes to retrieve his briefcase, in which Mifune's character has planted cash.





The scene's focus may appear to be on Shirai and his superior Moriyama, who has become suspicious of him. But in the background the whole time is Mifune, who remains silent. He gives a subtle, effective performance that draws our eyes to him and is eventually centered in frame. 




The Bad Sleep Well is considered to be loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Kurosawa more directly adapted Shakespeare on two other occasions. The first was the 1957 film Throne of Blood, which utilized the plot of Macbeth. In 1985, he adapted King Lear to make the epic masterpiece Ran. I'm far from a Shakespeare expert, but supposedly this film takes more liberties with the source material than those two.


This easily ranks among the Japanese master's best, and is essential viewing for any Kurosawa fan.





Sunday, March 22, 2015

Check out two unofficial music videos I made for Tim Hecker and Gesloten Cirkel



The first one's for the track "Submit X" from Gesloten Cirkel's 2014 album of the same name. The video is edited from really old cartoons. You can watch it here.



The second one is for ambient artist Tim Hecker and his track "The Piano Drop" from his album Ravedeath, 1972.

video






Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Beginner's Guide to the IDM Genre (Part 2)

Part 1 in this series can be found here.


I have saved Boards of Canada for last out of the big names in IDM because they are not like the others in many ways. However, they are usually lumped into the genre.


They still make experimental electronic music aimed at home listening. But while the aforementioned 3 artists make music that is fast-paced, chaotic, and at times intense, Boards of Canada have a different approach. Their work is much more laid-back and ethereal. Aphex Twin and Autechre create music that at times, doesn’t sound like it’s referencing any era, but Boards of Canada has a definite nostalgic vibe.


Boards of Canada also gained fame a bit later than the others, although they were supposedly releasing music as early as 1987. However, these first few albums were only limited releases and not available to the general public.


They are made up of two brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin. Like the others, they are from the UK, but these two are Scottish.


Their first major release and earliest available official music was the Hi Scores EP in 1995. According to bocpages.org, the Boards of Canada wiki, only around 100 copies were distributed by Boards of Canada privately through their own label. Due to its rarity, the record was at one point going for about $1000 on ebay.


One of the most interesting tracks on the EP is “Basefree”. It’s much faster and more hyperactive than most later Boards of Canada albums.





Another track from Hi Scores, “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” was later included on BoC’s first full length.



That full length would end up being the seminal 1998 release, “Music Has the Right to Children.” The album is very influential and is often considered a landmark in modern electronic music.


Is often cited as the best Boards of Canada album and it isn’t a bad choice. In my eyes, it is clearly in the top two, but falls a bit short of their next album.



This was their first release on Warp Records, the famous IDM label that has released music by genre heavyweights such as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. There is a clear influence from artists like Aphex and Autechre, as well the ambient master Brian Eno. In fact, MHTRTC doesn’t really do anything specifically new. Rather, it brings previously used techniques together in a way that had not been done before.


Many have described the album as about childhood. Obviously there is the title, but many  track names give off this feeling as well. A couple are references to things you learn as a child such as “Triangles and Rhombuses” and “Roygbiv” named after the acronym that helps children learn the colors of the rainbow.


Furthermore, “Aquarius” contains samples of a child giggling as well as a woman saying numbers. You can listen to it in the video below.




My personal favorite off this LP is one that shows a bit of the trip-hop influence of Boards of Canada, “Telephasic Workshop”. It has some very creative usage of vocal samples.






Another standout is the downtempo track, “An Eagle in Your Mind”.





Their next album would be Geogaddi, dropped in 2002 out of nowhere with little promotion. It is in my humble opinion, their best album  to this day. Some have complained that it doesn’t really break any new ground compared to their previous work, and this may be a valid point.  A Pitchfork review stated, “As similar as this album is to the rest of the band’s catalog, it seems a safe speculation that the concept of ‘reinvention’ is not part of the Boards of Canada M.O.”


However, I view Geogaddi as the perfection of the Boards of Canada sound. It is worth noting that I listened to this one first (as I was quite young at the time), so I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what a follow up to Music Has the Right to Children should sound like.



It’s worth noting the time period in which this was released. The previous year, 2001 had seen the release of multiple albums that featured IDM artists at their creative peak. Aphex Twin’s Druqks is often cited as his best work, and he fell off the face of the earth for a decade a few years later. Autechre’s Confield and Squarepusher’s Go Plastic also came out in 2001 and are considered to be the apex of their classic sound. The same can be said for Geogaddi in my opinion.


As with their previous LP this album is really meant to be experienced as a whole, but there are definitely a few tracks that jump out. One of the best is “1969”, which you can check out below.






The next major release was The Campfire Headphase, released in 2005. This is my least favorite BoC album. It isn’t bad, and a has a distinct new sound when compared with their previous output, which ended up being somewhat divisive among the fanbase. They went with more of an acoustic approach and featured a stronger emphasis on guitars and less of an emphasis on synths.


They released an EP in 2006, Trans Canada Highway and then went silent for 7 years. Many fans thought that Boards of Canada would never release new music again. This is a similar situation to what happened with Aphex Twin, who went from 2001 to 2014 without releasing an LP under that alias.





In 2013, they finally ended their hiatus and bestowed upon fans a new LP, Tomorrow’s Harvest. The album didn’t blow any minds, but it is a solid return to form. It harkens back to Music Has the Right to Children and Geogaddi, but is missing some of the joy and innocence of those releases and instead charts a darker path.


Tomorrow’s Harvest is strongly influenced by film soundtracks of the 1980s, especially horror movies such as those directed by John Carpenter.


It got a mostly positive reception from music critics, but some fans were disappointed that the album wasn’t much of an evolution in their sound. I can’t disagree with this assessment, but just having anything from them after so many years of nothing is a treat.


The single from Tomorrow’s Harvest was the haunting “Reach for the Dead”, which even got a pretty neat music video, directed by Neil Krug. Check it out below.








I will now discuss the next level of IDM artists that have made an impact, but not on as big of a scale as the previous four.


The first I will mention is the London duo Plaid, made up of Andy Turner and Ed Handley. The two were also part of the group The Black Dog (with Ken Downey) from 1993 to 1995.


Plaid released their first LP in 1991, Mbuki Mvuki, which was one of the earliest IDM albums. It has more of a jazz influence than a lot of other music in this genre. “Slice of Cheese” is a track that demonstrates this with its jazzy drums.







Another one that shows their uniqueness is “Scoobs in Columbia” which has vocal samples and a much more upbeat feel than the usual IDM fare.







Both Plaid and The Black Dog have continued to make music to this day. In 2011, Plaid came out with Scintilli, an excellent LP.  The sparse track “35 Summers” had a visually stunning music video released for it.



My favorite from Scintilli is “Sömnl”, which features a creepy bassline.



Their most recent effort is 2014’s Reachy Prints. The track “Tether” was chosen as the single.




Another influential figure in IDM is Luke Vibert. Like Richard D. James, he is from Cornwall. In fact, the two are friends and have done a live performance together.


Vibert has made 22 albums under many aliases, including Luke Vibert,  Wagon Christ, and the drum ‘n bass project Plug.


The best Plug track I have heard is probably “Come on My Skeleton”, which was produced in 1996, but released in 2011 on Back in Time. It features some Indian sounding instruments as well as a humorous vocal sample at the end.






Another excellent one is “Astronaut”, released in 2006. Like “Come on My Skeleton” it is playful and strongly features a silly vocal sample.





One of his more popular tracks under the Luke Vibert name is “I Love Acid”, made in 2003.






His most recent album as Luke Vibert was the 2014 LP Ridmik. One of the best tracks on it is “Acid Jacker”, which is embedded below.





Next we come to Mike Paradinas, yet another IDM heavyweight that hails from the UK and makes music under several different aliases. These include Tusken Raiders, Jake Slazenger, and Kid Spatula.


I really enjoy his work as Tusken Raiders, especially this track “Tatooine Sunset” off the 1995 album Bantha Trax.



His main body of work has been made under the µ-Ziq moniker. The first µ-Ziq album, Tango N’ Vectif came out in 1993 on Rephlex Records, owned by Aphex Twin. They even released an album together in 1996 as Mike and Rich titled Expert Knob Twiddlers. “Mr. Frosty” is a surprisingly catchy tune off that album.



Paradinas would go on to make his own record label Planet Mu, in 1998. It has featured artists  such as Burial, Boxcutter, Venetian Snares, Pinch, and Ceephax.


He has released an album as µ-Ziq as recently as 2013 with Chewed Corners.


Our first IDM artist not from the UK is the German duo Mouse on Mars, made up of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner. They began making music in 1993, with their first full length Vulvaland coming out in 1994.


Here’s a pretty solid track from their debut, “Uah”.





Their most recent release was the Spezmodia EP in 2014.  Check out a bizarre video for a track on it called “Cream Theme”.





Finally we come to an oddball even for the world of IDM, Venetian Snares. This is the alias of Canadian electronic musician Aaron Funk. Funk is strongly influenced by the breakcore genre, but also mixes in elements of classical music.


He has been very prolific. According to Wikipedia, he has made 22 albums under the Venetian Snares name alone, and (shocker!) has also released music under various aliases.


I’ve only listened to a small percentage of his vast output, but my favorite so far has been “Fool the Detector” from the 2012 EP of the same name.







Other IDM artists that are more under the radar include Cylob, Richard Devine, Ceephax (Squarepusher’s brother), Christ., Arovane, and Cex. Artists that aren’t necessarily straight up IDM but are sometimes labeled that way such as Plastikman, LFO, and Oneohtrix Point Never are definitely worth checking out.



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Friday, March 13, 2015

The Beginner's Guide to the IDM Genre (Part 1)



This essay is intended to serve as a beginner’s guide to the musical genre known as IDM. A subgenre of electronic music, it started to formulate in the early 1990s. It was referred to as “intelligent” dance music because it was more complex than many of the mainstream dance tracks that were being produced at the time.


IDM tracks tend to be more experimental and less oriented towards getting people to dance. The genre is a bit difficult define; it’s a bit of an “I know it when I hear it” type situation. One major way to delineate it is that it is usually meant for listening at home as opposed to being played by a DJ in a club-like atmosphere.


The name IDM is often eschewed by the actual artists who supposedly make it. A somewhat less common term used is “braindance.” Several musicians associated with the genre actively reject the IDM label.




The most influential and important artist of the genre is clear in my mind: Aphex Twin (real name Richard D. James). His influence had been clear in not just IDM, but electronic music in general. James was born in Ireland, but grew up in Cornwall.






James is an example of an artist who doesn’t appreciate the label “intelligent dance music.” He was quoted in 1997 as saying, “I just think it's really funny to have terms like that. It's basically saying 'this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.' It's really nasty to everyone else's music.”


The music of Aphex Twin is incredibly varied. He has dabbled in several different genres, including jungle, ambient, acid techno, and even piano pieces. His ambient tracks on albums such as Selected Ambient Works Volume II sound worlds apart from his spastic, fast paced tracks on 2001’s Drukqs.


Aphex Twin’s most well known track is most likely Come To Daddy, off the 1997 EP of the same name. The track is solid and a bit mainstream compared to much of his other work, but a big part of its fame is due to the insane music video by Chris Cunningham. It features freakish imagery including a group of small children all with the grinning face of Aphex Twin.






The track titled, “Windowlicker” is his second most famous, also partly due to a grotesque music video by Cunningham. This time, instead of children, we see the Aphex Twin face on bikini-clad women.






The most essential Aphex Twin album in my opinion is clearly Drukqs. It is often considered to be the peak of his career, although this may be partly because there was not another album released under the Aphex Twin name for 13 years, until 2014’s Syro.


Most of the tracks on this album are frenetic, chaotic ones such as “Omgyjya Switch 7” and “Vordhosbn”. 





Those contrast with short interludes of a computer controlled grand piano, with its sound sometimes altered in various ways. These calm tracks are reminiscent of the John Cage prepared piano pieces. Examples of the more mellow ones include “Avril 14th” and “Kladfvgbung Michsk.”






Also crucial is the Selected Ambient Works series, consisting of two albums, SAW 85-82 and SAW Volume II. The first was released in 1992, the second in 1994. Standout tracks from the first include “Ageispolis”, “We are the Music Makers” (which contains a sample of the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and “Xtal”.





Some of my favorites from Volume II are the opener “Cliffs”, and "Weathered Stone".




Additionally, Richard D. James has made music under several different aliases, including AFX, Polygon Window, Caustic Window and Bradley Strider. There’s even an amusing remix of the Pac-Man theme song by him under the name “Power Pill.”


The next level of big names in IDM clearly consists of three names: Autechre, Squarepusher, and Boards of Canada.



Like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher is a UK artist. Tom Jenkinson is his given name. His music is similar to Aphex in that it is often chaotic, intense, and full of surprises. However, he clearly has his own sound and differs from Richard D. James in many ways.


Squarepusher’s sound is much more jazz-influenced. He plays bass guitar and this often a big part of his live set. Many of his tracks also exhibit strong drum and bass roots.


He first started releasing music in 1994 and is commonly considered to have been inspired by Aphex Twin’s music, although the inspiration has clearly gone both ways over the years. They even produced a track together in 1998, “Freeman Hardy and Willis Acid.”






The first full length effort from Squarepusher, Feed Me Weird Things, came out in 1996 and is a perfect example of both his jungle and jazz influences.


One of my favorite tracks from that album is the jazzy opener, “Squarepusher Theme.”







Squarepusher followed that up with his second album, 1997’s Hard Normal Daddy. The single taken from it was “Vic Acid”, but the clear standout is the manic, high energy “Fat Controller.” This track is a perfect example of how the album is experimental, yet still funky and enjoyable.






Jenkinson continued to release albums steadily for the next few years. In 1998 he came out with Music is Rotted One Note and Buzz Caner, with Selection Sixteen in 1999.


His most intriguing release from this era is the 2001 album Go Plastic. Picked as the single was the incredibly catchy “My Red Hot Car”, which features vocals with the line, “I want to fuck you with my red hot car.”







Since then, Squarepusher continues to release music every year or two. His most recent full-length came out in 2012, titled Ufabulum. Simply put, even for Squarepusher/IDM standards, the album is absolutely insane. Ufabulum is purely electronic and doesn’t feature any live instruments as his albums often do. It is considered by many to be his strongest effort since Go Plastic and I have to say I agree.


The single from the album, “Dark Steering” was given a trippy music video that showed off a new feature of Squarepusher’s live show, an LED helmet he wears that matches up with a crazy looking screen in the background. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform this album live at the Movement Festival in Detroit, MI. Needless to say, it was one of the coolest and most intense live performances I’ve seen.






My favorite cut off this one is probably, “The Metallurgist.” It is embedded below.







On April 20, 2015 his new album Damogen Furies, will be made available. One track, “Rayc Fire 2”, can currently be downloaded from his official website for free.



Unsurprisingly, the next artist we will discuss is also from the UK. The group known as Autechre consists of Sean Booth and Rob Brown, who were both born in Manchester, England.


They started about the same time as Aphex Twin, with their first two EPs, Cavity Job and Lego Feet being published in 1991.


Their debut LP, 1993’s Incunabula was a unique and influential album in the world of electronic music. The album has a minimal, cold, and clinical feel to it. Yet it still manages to have emotional resonance at times.


It was released by Warp Records, the highly influential label that has also published music by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.


The excellent track “Basscadet” was selected as the single, which makes it the only Autechre single to come from an LP.







My personal favorite from Incunabula is “Bike”, which is embedded here.









Their next full-length album, Amber, was put out in 1994. Like Incunabula, Amber has more of a mainstream sound when compared with later Autechre works. However, it was a bit more ambient and less beat-oriented than their first release.


Amber is a solidly consistent record, but my favorite may be the track “Slip”, which is linked to below.





Autechre dropped their third album Tri Repetae, in 1995, and we begin to see more of the experimental sound that most associate with them. Even their first two albums stretched the limits of what could be considered “dance music” but with Tri Repetae, they left that world entirely.


This album is even more cold and emotionless than their more accessible previous releases. Quiet tracks like “Overand” are definitely not something you would hear at a club.







In 1995, they also released an EP named Anvil Vapre. “Second Bad Vilbel” was chosen off of it to get a music video directed by Chris Cunningham, who directed videos for Aphex Twin as I mentioned earlier.







Their fourth LP, Chiastic Slide debuted in 1997. It continued with the experimental sound of Tri Repetae but didn't necessarily  break any new ground comparatively. LP5, the fifth Autechre album, arrived in 1998.


2001 saw the release of Confield, what many consider to be the height of Autechre’s musical output. It was also the apex of their experimentation. Right from the opener “VI Scose Poise”, it’s clear this is a challenging, but rewarding listen.








Next year, Autechre made an EP titled Gantz Graf. The title track was turned into a visually stunning music video by British artist Alex Rutterford. Rutterford has worked with musicians such as Radiohead and Amon Tobin.


The video features some absolutely insane abstract computer generated imagery that is perfectly synchronized to the music. Supposedly, the idea for the video came to the artist during an LSD trip.







After that came Draft 7.30 in 2003 and Untilted in 2005. The latter features one of my favorite Autechre tracks, the epic, frenzied, almost 16-minute (their longest) “Sublimit”.






Quaristice came out in 2008 and in my opinion, saw the beginning of a new sound for Autechre that would carry over in their future releases. It was less intense and chaotic and more minimal in a strange way than earlier albums. There were also a lot of shorter tracks; Quaristice had 20, more than any other Autechre album and some were under three minutes.


“The Plc” is a good example of the quirky, almost laid-back new direction of their music.






2010’s Oversteps was in a similar vein. Gone is the maximalism of some of their tracks from albums such as Confield, and instead many of the songs have an ambient vibe. Oversteps also had 14 tracks, a decent amount for Autechre, with many of them five minutes or shorter.


One of my favorites on Oversteps is the ethereal “see on see”.






Their most recent release was Exai, a 2014 double album that was their best since at least Untilted. The album has seventeen tracks plus a Japanese bonus track and is over two hours in length.


The 12-minute “bladelores” is one of my favorites off Exai.






In part 2 of this series, I discuss Boards of Canada as well as some of the lesser-known IDM artists.

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