Introductory Nomenclature

Just arrived from Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International label – the sky blue limited edition reissue of Telefon Tel Aviv’s majestic debut, Fahrenheit Fair Enough. Fahrenheit was originally issued by Chicago’s Hefty Records, and fit smashingly alongside their other downtempo and IDM recordings.

Ghostly International is home to Tycho, Gold Panda, Com Truise, and other crafters of what Sundae Club playfully dubbed “Technostalgic Tunes”. And Fahrenheit is no exception. Here, Telefon Tel Aviv expertly weaves together sparse melodic fragments and the occasional jazzy licks with intricately complex abstract glitch patterns. What results is a marriage of the warm, nostalgic instrumentation one would expect from a band like Boards of Canada seamlessly fused with the atonal mechanical rhythmic constructions of Richard D. James. It is a wonderfully satisfying record which warrants repeated listenings both active and subliminal.

This limited edition release also includes a digital download which features additional Archive ’99 material capturing more of the best sounds the artist has to offer.

A review from the BBC called the album, “Gorgeous, yet completely devoid of cliché… a quiet, unpretentious beauty of a record.” Fahrenheit Fair Enough is certainly some of the finest downtempo IDM music released this year.

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Electronic Love

I’ve just received the most WONDERFUL Christmas gift from one of my oldest and dearest friends. If every you’ve asked yourself, “what is the perfect gift for the audiophile who has everything?” this is precisely the sort of gift you should consider.

This is the Electronic Love Blueprint: A History of Electronic Music by the Dorothy design collective – an electrical schematic of a theremin mapping 200 inventors, innovators, artists, composers spanning the entire history of recorded sound. Key pioneers featured include Léon Theremin, Bob Moog, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin.

It loosely groups genres, from the obscure Musique Concrète (Pierre Schaeffer) to the better known Krautrock (Kraftwerk, Can, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Faust, Cluster, Harmonia and Amon Düül II) Synthpop (Gary Numan, Human League, Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Pet Shop Boys) and Electronica (New Order, The Prodigy, Massive Attack, LCD Sound System and Daft Punk). There are also references to the experimental BBC Radiophonic Workshop and favourite innovating record labels Mute and Warp.

This metallic silver screen print on 120gsm Keaykolour Royal Blue uncoated paper measures 60 x 80cm and will be the pride of my listening room.

I’ve ordered a UK frame and can’t wait to display it!

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The Renaissance of Vinyl Records in the Digital Age

This is, undeniably the second Golden Age for music collectors.  The industry has finally acknowledged the massive resurgence of the vinyl format as a cultural response to the first decade of non-physical digital media.  A growing percentage of the listening public are re-claiming the participatory listening experience of the vinyl era.  And the undeniable consumer demand is most visible with the format’s own holiday – National Record Store Day.

There has been a tremendous shift over the last 10 years in the availability and selection of vinyl.  Where once buyers had to dig through innumerable copies of Firestone Christmas, Barry Manilow LPs, and Sing Along With Mitch to find a hopeful grail, local new-and-used record shops are once again staples of every major city.   Of course, the independent record store never really disappeared, but vinyl’s new-found popularity has drastically affected the stock you’ll find at your local store.

The compromise is of the “hip” exclusivity of the format.  Once-rare and prized LPs are now flooding the shelves of every local record shop.  The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, The Stone Roses, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream… nearly every critical album of the 90s is being repressed by the thousands, and many for the first time on vinyl.  The market is approaching a level of absurdity as even the least-likely candidates for what was once an audiophile market are now being issued as “limited edition” colored-vinyl exclusives.  The soundtrack to the Nickelodeon series, The Adventures of Pete and Pete is scheduled for an upcoming release as is the soundtrack to the movie, Clueless (available in special yellow-plaid vinyl.)

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The market was further impacted by the emergence of Discogs.com.  Launched in the year 2000, Discogs raised the bar and revolutionized web-based record sales. The site’s users have cataloged 5.7 million pressings of over 800,000 community-contributed albums.  This crowd-sourced system has made Discogs the ideal place to buy and sell music and democratized record values to a single global standard.

This marks a potentially-dangerous turn for the format, where abundance of supply may result in a supersaturation of the market, and the flood of “nostalgia-vinyl” may cripple the perceived value of these novelty LPs.  Where dedicated collectors previously drove city-to-city crate-digging for scarce acetates and private press LPs from special collections, the market was rapidly-transformed by web-based services offering global-accessibility to even the most elusive recordings.  Now labels are repressing anything and everything that might tug at the nostalgic heartstrings of a budding collector, further changing the market landscape.

In the last decade, countless buyers shelled out an average of $95 to claim a hallowed copy of Aphex Twin’s classic, Selected Ambient Works Volume II.  They likely paid an extra $20 to import it to the States.  The scarcity of the record made it a grail for many lovers of electronic music.  Fortunately for hopeful fans around the world (though not for the original buyers) WARP Records widely reissued the album and copies are available in malls across America for just $29.99.  The lesson of this example and of thousands of others like it is that rarity-inspired purchases are a losing game, more so now than ever before.

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 Portishead’s Dummy from 1994 – reissued in 2014 on colored vinyl.

But in this new buyer’s market, collectors should celebrate it as a wonderful time for music lovers everywhere.  Listeners can have all the classic albums from their youth, or deluxe editions of classics from decades past – available right in their neighborhood and at an unbeatable price.  But whatever you do, buy first and foremost for the love of the music – a return-on-investment that will not be shaken by the ebb and flow of a fickle consumer market.  Free your holy grails from their sleeves and spin them.  Your music is waiting to be played and enjoyed.  And today, you can have it all.

The Merits of Nostalgia and a Cozy Placebo Effect

And so it came to pass that my beloved McIntosh C39 pre-amp was not made happy by replacing the volume pot.  I’d decided in advance that if that didn’t fix it, I would cut my losses and consider, for the first time in my 30+ years, to explore the possibility of a brand new pre-amp/power amp combo.

My first McIntosh - a MAC 4280.  RIP 2013.

My first McIntosh – a MAC 4280.

I am fully aware of the tried-and-true code of the audiophile – quality vintage gear will generally out-perform and out-last newer contemporaries dollar-for-dollar.  But after repeatedly battling oxidation, bad resistors, and a few bad volume pots for the better part of three decades, I was ready to consider something new.

The Next Generation: My McIntosh C39 Pre-Amp (RIP 2014)

The Next Generation: My McIntosh C39

My life-long trusted audio adviser and best-friend tossed a few suggestions my way, namely the emotiva xsp-1, some newer Rotel models, and the most alluring of his suggestions – the Parasound Halo p3.  But for the interim, I had a local hi-fi shop tune up my Yamaha CR-840 – the first real amp I ever had.  Years ago channel A stopped working, and oxidation built up rending the amp nearly-unusable, but I’d never given it up, as it was a very special gift.  Thankfully the shop returned it to me the next day in PERFECT working condition!

I’d forgotten how great it sounded.  Please understand – I know it’s not remotely in the same class as some of the finer amps I’ve used, but the warm and familiar tone of this amp transports me back to college and all the memories attached to those years.  I completely acknowledge that this nostalgia trip is in no way a measure of the amp’s technical performance.  It is of no quantifiable measure an amp comparable to my MACs or, likely, to the Parasound amp.  But I will fully-embrace the head-trip it brings and am more than satisfied to use it until the right upgrade comes along.

Next up? Parasound Halo P3

Next up – Perhaps the Parasound Halo P3

To make the amp-swap official, I chucked the eyesore of a component rack that I’d picked up from a thrift shop.  30-seconds of Craigslist searching produced a nifty 60s record shelf for only a few bucks to serve as both a surface for the amp and as additional record storage.  Better still – the funky elderly couple selling it were ridiculously adorable and had mirrored-and-velvet-patterned wallpaper with matching decor all about their home.

Not kidding.  This... with mirrored panels.

Not kidding. This… with mirrored panels.

The shelf has a very “college” feel to accompany the amp, and the space was PERFECT to relocate all my LPs pressed between 1995 and the present.  All my favorites are in here – DJ Food, Boards of Canada, Lemon Jelly, DJ Shadow, The Orb, Underworld, Stereolab, Spiritualized, The KLF, St Germain, Bonobo, Aphex Twin, Cinematic Orchestra, Sigur Ros, Pantha Du Prince, Low, Beck, The FLips, with just enough room to sneak in nearly all of Brian Eno and Tom Waits’ albums.

The Nostalgia Corner

The Nostalgia Corner

This is as good a time as any to resolve to listen to more of my records in 2015 – to enjoy what I have instead of always searching for the next grail.

And there you have it – an objective and meticulous audiophile reduced to a nostalgic dolt by his trust old amp.  Think what you will, but I’ll be happy here, spinning some great tunes.

Eno & Hyde Postcards from their first two LPs

Eno & Hyde Postcards from their first two LPs

The History of Modern Ambient Music: Part 2 – 1993-2014

The conclusion to my 2-part Ambient Milestones series is now published on YouTube!  The exciting final element to the feature arrived in the post just a few days ago and I am delighted to share it with you all.

Or click here for the HD version.

The First 800 Albums of 2013

I’ve been all over the ambient and experimental map these first two months of the year.  I recently revisited Boards of Canada’s extended catalog – 6 LPs, 4 compilation albums, 6 EPs, and two live sets (the Warp 10th Anniversary Party from ’99 and All Tomorrows Parties in 2001) and fell in love with the sound of early downtempo all over again.

For years I’ve loved Peter Gabriel’s fourth LP (in particular the tribal percussion on the track, “Rhythm of the Heat”) as well as the Birdy and Passion soundtracks from ’85 and ’89.  I decided it was finally time to acquaint myself with the rest of his discography, so I picked up a digital archive of his 14 studio albums, 17 singles, 11 remastered recordings, 6 official compilations and 6 live albums.  I have I-IV on vinyl, as well as the Birdy OST, and this archive will be the perfect way for me to identify which LPs to order next.

Also this past month I decided to explore the birth of IDM.  A quick bit of research uncovered the Artificial Intelligence series on the Warp label, which was the definitive collection of early intelligent dance releases.  The series included 8 discs issued between 1992-1994.  The selection below is by Link, which is one-half Tom Middleton who I remember from the Cosmic Fury DJ face-off  between Middleton and Fred Deakin of Lemon Jelly.

And after months of researching krautrock’s greatest recordings, I finally picked up 11 albums by Faust.  And thank god, because the search led me to the 1973 masterpiece collaboration of Faust and Tony Conrad titled Outside the Dream Syndicate.  This stripped-bare, minimalist record puts you into a trace and you slowly begin to feel the subtle nuances of the droning violin and the relentless percussion.  A most rewarding listen!  I promptly added Conrad’s debut LP to my shopping list.  It’s around $100 when it surfaces, so it appears I’m not the only fan out there.

Popol Vuh was another German 70s artist I discovered and enjoyed this past month.  I tried out their 27 LP catalog spanning 1970 – 1999 and (as usual) was most fond of their debut album – Affenstunde.  The album is a solid 40 minutes of droning proto-synth sounds and natural percussion.  Unlike the later work of Tangerine Dream, the album never sounds artificial or sequenced.  It remains organic from start to finish.  I’ll be looking for this album at the record show next month.

Just before the month began I went through the complete discography of Tangerine Dream chronologically by date of release to identify which albums from their vast catalog would best fit my library.  I picked up 206 discs, including all studio albums, all remasters, live LPs, soundtracks, singles, and solo projects by each member of the band.  A week into listening and reading I knew exactly what I wanted.  Their first four records were much more experimental and organic than the sequencer-based ambient work that they are best known for.  Long before they inspired the new age genre they were making crazy avant garde German music not unlike Popol Vuh.

Unfortunately, original pressings of these early albums would set me back $50 apiece and $100 for a clean copy of their debut LP.  After two days of research, I found the answer.

In 1985, Relativity Records pressed 3000 numbered copies of a box set called In the Beginning… which included their first four albums, uncut, and the previously unreleased Green Desert LP.  All of the original album art is included in the set along with a ten page book about the band.  Best of all – I secured a copy for a mere $25.  This was the PERFECT solution for my situation!

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While I was on a German kick I decided to put the finishing touches on my Kraftwerk library.  I already had Radioactivity and Autobahn on vinyl so I picked up their first 17 albums digitally to see where I wanted to go next.  I instantly fell in love with Kraftwerk I and Kraftwerk II.  These were the experimental LPs they produced before Ralf & Florian secured their signature electronic sound.  Many reviewers write the first two albums off as “for-completists-only.”  I strongly disagree.  While of course these are no Autobahn, they are beautiful free-form experiments and I had to have them on wax.  After two days of exploring I settled on the Italian Crown label bootleg pressings which came with red vinyl and green marbled vinyl discs.  I found one seller with both albums so I saved on shipping and took the plunge.  They’ll be in the mail this week.

The other German group I had neglected for far too long was the band, Neu!  I’m listening to the six LPs they released between 1972 and 2010 (the most recent being a recording from 1986.)  I think I’ll have to agree with the majority of fans that their first two records from ’72 and ’73 are their best work.  I’ll be looking for original pressings at the record show as well.

I also picked up the fan-produced bootleg series of EPs titled, The KLF Recovered & Remastered.  The 6 EPs and 7th Special Remixes disc include magnificent independent remasters from the KLF’s deleted catalog.  These EPs are on par with the work Dr. Ebbetts and The Purple Chick did with the Beatles’ recordings.

KLF Remastered

The best disc by far is EP 6 – Live From the Lost Continent 2012, which is a simulated live stadium concert in which the KLF take the listener on a tour through their entire career.  It opens with the Rites of Mu and closes, appropriately with the KLF collaboration with Extreme Noise Terror at the February 1992 BRIT Awards.  This was the legendary performance where they fired blanks into the audience, declared that they’d left the music business, and dumped a sheep carcass at the doors of the building.  The sampled screams of the audience all throughout this hour-and-17-minute “performance” is true to form to what the KLF, themselves did with their Stadium House Trilogy and the entire concert is an absolute triumph.  Best of all, it lets long-time fans take part in one last show decades after Drummond and Cauty left the biz behind.

I have over 88 KLF albums and singles in my library, and EP #6 RE now ranks #1 on my list.  And thanks to EP #1, I’ve added the America, What Time is Love LP single to my shopping list.

Always on the hunt for more experimental music, I finally took the advice of my favorite record store owner and listened to Soft Machine’s first four albums.  I had discovered the Canterbury Scene.  More of a journalistic term than anything else, (like krautrock) it referred to a group of musicians around Canterbury who worked together in several bands around the time that the Berlin School was born in Germany.

I researched a list of essential artists and picked up their discographies.  This included Soft Machine, Matching Mole, Egg, Steve Hillage, National Health, Khan, Ash Ra Tempel/Ashra/Manuel Gottsching, Gong, Caravan and Henry Cow.

The organ work on Egg’s first LP is brilliant, and warranted repeated listenings.  I also enjoyed their post-break-up release, The Civil Surface from ’74.  Both have been added to my record show list.

Out of the 17 albums in Gong’s library, I found the Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy to be the most memorable.  Released between 1973 and 74 these were finally re-pressed in Italy in 2002 and have sold online for about $45 apiece for the re-issues.  Angel’s Egg (Radio Gnome Invisible Pt 2) seems to be their strongest record.

I was similarly floored by Ash Ra Tempel’s first two LPs.  If you like post-psychedelic drone, their early stuff is really worth picking up.  I’m going through the 49 LPs they released between 1970 and 2007 but so far Ash Ra Tempel (1971) and Schwingungen (1972) are my clear favorites.

The unfortunate thing about many of the Canterbury and krautrock artists is that there were no pressings made after their original releases in the early 1970s.  This means a listener may have to shell out one or two hundred dollars per album, which is why I’ve no reservation about familiarizing myself with their catalog digitally before making that kind of investment.

On to more contemporary sounds, I’ve been following the Electronic Supper Club series which is a great collection of live dj sets.  Of the thirty three hours of material available thus far, hour 30, “Set 2” is a memorable favorite – lots of deep house grooves which are great for both the dancefloor or the living room.  Click here if you’d like to watch the set.

That got me in the mood for more quality IDM, so I picked up 47 albums and singles by Aphex Twin.  I’m still trying to warm up to the fan-favorite, Selected Ambient Works Vol 2 which inevitably surfaces in conversations about all-time-greatest ambient releases.

I may also invest in a vinyl copy of Powerpill (the Pac-Man techno single) to add to my ridiculously large collection of Pac-Man Fever merchandise.  The Aphex Twin library is just over 41 hours worth of material so I’m sure I’ll find a few classic releases to order on wax.  (“Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” from Clint Mansell’s Pi soundtrack comes immediately to mind.)

Ever since I sampled Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach vinyl box set during my last pilgrimage to my hometown record shop I’ve wanted to learn more about his work.  I have 53 of his discs in my archive and I’m slowly making my way through the collection.  He seems consistent in his approach to music and his focus on short, repeated patterns gives it an almost drone-like quality.  Thus far the Einstein on the Beach 4LP set is my favorite so I will likely pick it up from the shop.  I only wish there were vinyl issues of the short pieces he composed for Sesame Street in 1979 for the animated shorts, The Geometry of Circles.  He wrote them while developing Einstein on the Beach, which is probably why that album remains my favorite so far.

I watched the stunning space madness film, Moon from 2009 this month.  Imagine a two-hour film with only one actor… and you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time.  What was most memorable about the film was the score – a simple oscillation of two notes on a piano that sticks in your head hours after the film has ended.  After researching the film I read that the melody was a metaphor for the conflict between the main character and his clone (both played by the same actor.)

I was surprised to learn that the score was written by the aforementioned Clint Mansell, the former guitarist for Pop Will Eat Itself.  He has written the scores for many films, including Black Swan (2010), Doom (2005) and the soundtrack I mentioned earlier – Pi (1998).  His more recent works have entered into modern classical territory, and I’m enjoying it very much.  I picked up all 19 of his scores and my vinyl copy of Moon arrived in the mail last week.

At the beginning of the month I was researching an old CD I remembered from 2000 – LTJ Bukem’s Journey Inwards.  I had recently heard tracks by Big Bud which had the same Intelligent D’n’B feel as Journey Inwards.  Sure enough, I learned that they were produced on the same label.  I quickly picked up the complete 94 disc catalog which included all of the Good Looking Records/Earth/Soul/Logical Progression/Looking Back/etc releases and I absolutely loved what I heard.  Shortly after listening to this collection I added Big Bud’s Late Night Blues LP to my shopping list.  The album plays like a live show in a small space-jazz club, and is great music to wind down to.

My exploration of space-jazz led me to a Various Artists collection called The Future Sounds of Jazz.  This series compiles the best electronic “future jazz” singles from 1995 – 2012 in a wonderful 21 disc set.  Nightmares on Wax became a fast-favorite of mine, and I will likely be purchasing their first two LPs – Caraboot Soul and A Word of Science.

The last new entry in my library this month was the result of my research into contemporary ambient sound.  I have approximately 830 ambient albums beginning with Erik Satie’s The Gymnopédies from 1888 and ending with Ulrich Schnauss’ A Long Way to Fall from 2013, but the majority of my ambient collection is what you would call “classic ambience.”

To get a better feel for more contemporary ambient recordings I researched a long-time favorite artist – Wolfgang Voigt.  He founded an ambient label in Cologne, Germany in 1993 and released collections of his favorite minimal and microhouse works on his label each year.  I picked up the 13 disc Pop Ambient set which began in 2001 and published their latest release last month.   It makes for a fantastic playlist, and is inspiring a number of future vinyl purchases.

So there you have it – the first 819 albums of 2013.  The year is off to a great start.  My research has yielded a list of must-have LPs which I’ve passed on to a record dealer who is traveling to Germany this week in preparation for the upcoming record show.  He promised to bring me back some great original pressings.  I’m looking forward to it!