Review: V/A – Apartment and Sunday Times (Apartment Records)

Back in the nineties it started to become possible to home in on individual and specific strands of house. The music was beginning to explode into a million forms as the original template drifted out of the hands of the original progenitors and into the sweaty grasp of people whose love for it, and their understanding of what it was, wasn’t tied to a specific era or geographical place. This brought benefits, chief amongst them a widening of the basic concept as various groups sought to rewire the sound for their own scenes and their own lives.

In the same way that we are attracted to the music which reflects something of ourselves, so it was for different communities. Of course, nothing can remain eternally pure, and nothing can remain true to a concept which only a handful of people may originally have held. With this was a growth in popularity, accompanied by a probably inevitable softening of many of genre’s strongest and most important elements. House today is a far cry from what first coalesced in Chicago clubs more than thirty years ago. It is a commercial enterprise now, and one which dwarfs every other electronic genre with the exception of the EDM charade.

The upshot of this is that when you do come across music which still harks back to something that is organically, intrinsically house (whether soulful, or acidic, or harder), it can sound alien to ears which have become attuned to the sleek forms which now dominate. We hear so much about deep house, about lo-fi house, that the deluge tends to drown out all other sounds. We begin to, well, maybe not so much accept them as the spiritual successors as allow them more leeway than they really deserve. It’s easier just to let it go.

Which brings us to this new four tracker on Irish label Apartment, a record which sounds and feels like the antithesis of so much of that contemporary house. Certainly, after so long stuck with house music which seeks to do little more than provide a momentary sugar rush, the collective of ideas, influences, and subtly altering moods on display here feel incredibly rich and a little jarring. It’s like coming face to face with an old friend you had thought long-lost; the warmth of familiarity filtered through a strange sense of anxiety and displacement.

Part of this odd feeling is rooted, perhaps, in the way that each of the four tracks here feel disconnected from the usual selection of influences, those ageing ideas which each new generation feels it has to tip its hat to. Sure, if you dig into the DNA far enough you’ll find those threads of Marshal Jefferson or Mr Fingers, or brush up against a genetic memory of Disco or Italo, but what you won’t get is the note-by-note transcription of the ancient past, and there is virtually none of house’s recent infatuation with ‘how we got here’. Which is a breath of fresh air because there comes a point where the past is nothing more than a roadblock.

Even so, Tr One’s Afrobeatdown has the feel of classic house, even if it’s of the breezy, Detroit techno tinged sort that Derrick May would melt your mind with in the middle of a set. Easy to swallow, but nourishing, it rides closest to the sort of thing which was coming out of the East Coast a few years back, and championed by the likes of DJ Q: a blend of thick house vibes cut open with razor-sharp touches and quick movement, held together by a bass which’ll void the insurance on your speakers.

Colm K’s Rays feels very much like a companion piece to Afrobeatdown, a more introspective examination of what happens when the music opens out to accommodate a wellspring of subtly variating moods. So much of the groove is carried in the little, almost incidental moments that it almost feels as if it doesn’t need the beats, although they are most welcome when they finally make their cameo.

It isn’t deep, not in the conventional sense of layering hackneyed, jazzy, riffs over lazy pads. Instead it works the contrast until the edges vanish into the shadows, and the way it plays with expectations, deconstructing rhythms and toying with the tune’s direction keeps it locked to an internalized and hidden compass. As open as the music’s sense of soulful adventure seems, it’ll have you working to get everything you can out of it.

Colm K’s other track, the short blast of late night soul that is HEY, could easily feel like a pastiche, but actually nods it’s head towards those parent genres which informed and influenced house but now feel cut out of the lazily written official history. It glistens with the grooves of 80s synthetic funk, R&B, and Vandrossian soul. There’s very little to it, if truth be told, but it’s a brilliant reminder that stepping off the path brings rewards.

The closer, Static’s Fallen Sky is perhaps the odd one out, being a heavier, less warmly open piece of house. Actually, it’s barely house at all and in many ways has little to do with any particular form of modern electronica (although that alone probably makes it a better example of modern electronica than most.) I don’t quite know where to start with it. It makes me think of Public Image – perhaps because the echoed snaps of vocals have more than a little of John Lydon’s honk to them – but mostly, as with HEY, it reminds me that the received wisdom of house is usually wrong, that the ocean of genetic soup that birthed it was far more stormy and exciting than we are led to believe. Part new wave, part Leftfield, part I haven’t got a clue what, it rotates the wrong way around, and forever catches you looking, guiltily, backwards.

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A Couple Of Record Reviews Via The Scenic Route

No matter how comfortable, a prison is still a prison. There is a window which looks out upon a scruffy tree and a concrete wall, and the room, small but not tiny, contains everything I might want for my work; note pads and an ancient computer, piles of records and books. The door leads to an airless corridor of peeling paint and scuffed linoleum. At one end is the bathroom with a small, high window through which you can sometimes hear snippets of distant conversation. At the other is the one door which leads to the outside world. It is never locked, and I can leave any time I want. Except, where would I go? and what would I do? Somehow that makes my sentence worse.

I sit at the desk and patter out loose words which describe the way I imagine the people who make the music want me to feel. I suspect I’m rarely right but I don’t really care because once the music’s in the wild, the only interpretation which matters is the one each listener brings to it. You can love your children, but once they leave the nest they are the only ones who can define themselves.

Once a week the doorbell will ring and I’ll swear, drag myself to my feet and shuffle down the corridor to let in The Archivist. He will lope past me; black jeans and a blacker mood, a stab of the eyes letting me know to leave him well alone. I am the scribe, and he is the archivist and so our work goes on.

He’s only ever happy when drifting through the shelves and the piles on the hunt for records. He seldom looks it though, and in this I think we are the same. I am only ever happy when I am writing but I will do my damnedest to avoid doing any. I will pull books apart to find out what makes them tick; I’ll construct cunning excuses with the same level of effort it would’ve taken to have written a novel; I’ll dilly and I’ll dally; I’ll hide, I’ll fuck about. The only thing I won’t do is work. Not until I’ve run out of every other available option.

There is a telephone in the room with The Archivist and I. They had it installed years ago and it’s an ugly thing of thick, moulded plastic the colour of over-ripe avocado, and with a handset so large and heavy it strains your hand to hold it for more than a minute. They got it from the reception desk of an A+E ward which was being closed down, and They smirked at the irony that something so essential could end up serving something so ephemeral. I hate phones at the best of times, but this one, this hideous thing, I despise. And of course, it senses when I have finally started to write because it begins to ring, it’s anxious, fussy trill filling the room. I try to ignore it, knowing I won’t be able to, and out of the corner of my eye I can cam see The Archivist glaring at me; He’s holding a battle-worn Jeff Mills EP and he hisses “Aren’t you going to answer it?” I shrug, knowing full well all that will do is piss him off.

I pick up the receiver before The Archivist blows his top, and say hello. There is nothing on the other end but silence and static at first, and I wonder briefly whether they are screwing with me. Eventually, just as I’m about to hang up, a voice, tiny, tinny and far away, says “have you heard it yet? Did you listen to it?”

I say nothing, letting he voice continue. It develops a slightly maniacal edge, pleading, and then demanding, I listen to the record it’s talking about, an anonymous 12″ by an unknown producer on a label called Keep Your Mouth Shut.

“I think it’s the Aphex Twin,” It says. “I think it’s him. There is an Aphex Twin sample on it. It would be delightfully ironic, wouldn’t it?” I Look over at The Archivist. I had put the phone onto speaker and now The Archivist is standing there, shaking his head at me.

“Sure, “I say. “Ironic.” And it would be, wouldn’t it? The Aphex Twin, once famous for his obtuse remixes which left not a trace of the original producer, identified as an unmarked, unknown artist, purely from a sample culled from his best known work. Ironic. Yeah. But I don’t know whether it’s true. I doubt it. It’s probably someone vaguely known to those of us who haunt the edges of The Music. Either that or a huge star harvesting easy kudos and their ticket back to the underground. Maybe. The rest of the record doesn’t really sound anything like him. The first track, for instance, is really just an average, middle of the road bumper that doesn’t go anywhere. Inoffensive, but lacking anything identifiable or unique. It could, literally, be anyone. It’s an American label too, not that it means anything in this day and age, but the clues are often found in the most unlikely of places.

The rest of the tunes are pretty good. No, scratch that. They’re excellent.

“I hope it’s not the Aphex Twin,” I tell the voice on the telephone. “I’d be much happier if it turns out to be a genuinely unknown artist. That second track with the AFX sample is a killer, but the B side – wow!”
“A strong release would you say?” the Voice enquires.
“As strong as it gets.”

In this I’m right. While the first track is OK, and the second, with its sample taken from AFX’s remix of an ancient St. Etienne song, is a deep well of lively nostalgia reworked into a hard and energized groove, it’s the other two tracks which really kick it into the next level. Track 3 with its heavy, slow breakbeats, wonderfully languid melody (another AFX sample?), and shadowy touches rises above the day-to-day and brings depth and imagination to a style that often locks itself down in a single direction. Track 4, a radioactive dose of cosmic craziness, neurotic and acid burned fluidity, is one of my favourite tracks of the year so far. I’d find a place for this gorgeous hit of wistful darkness in every set I’d play if I could ever get out of here.

“You don’t think…..” The Voice tails off, as if teasing.”you don’t think there is something to it that’s a little bit, well, old-fashioned? A little too set in the early nineties?”
“That’s why he likes it!” Hoots the archivist. “He can’t see that he automatically favours new music that reminds him of when he used to have some sort of a life!”

I give him the V’s and take the record off the deck, placing it on top of a pile of books and papers out of The Archivist’s reach just to annoy him.
“I can’t find a sample of it online to link to,” I moan. “I don’t like it when I can’t find a sample to link to.”
The Voice giggles. “Never mind. I’m sure they’ll get the gist from your amazing descriptive powers.”

The doorbell rings again, and The Archivist shuffles off to see who it is. He returns a moment later with a box of records he lovingly, carefully slices open with a craft knife. He doesn’t let me do it any more, having seen the way I tear at the card and the glue.

He holds up one of the fresh records. “You should review this. I think it’s going to be very popular.”
“Who is it by? what label is it on?” He reads the names.
“Oho! It’s them! I wondered why they’d been Liking so many of my posts on social media! Kiss arses! Brown Nosers! Trying to smooth me up after they ignored me for months!”

The tiny voice on the telephone speaker chimes in. “Calm yourself you dingbat, you dilettante. You’re paranoid. The pressure is getting to you. I’m sure they’re not kissing your arse. I’m sure they’re just admiring your writing.” The Archivist and The Voice break up into hysterics. I slam the receiver down and glare at The Archivist who stares back. We square up over a pile of filthy Dance Mania records. The phone rings again and I pick it up, dumping the handset on the desk as I press the loudspeaker button. I reach over and grab another one of the new records from The Archivist. A different one. “What about this one? It’s on Happy Skull, isn’t it?”

“Charnel House by Bass Clef,” he mutters. “You like Bass Clef.”
“Some of his stuff, Yeah. Didn’t go for that last one on Trilogy Tapes though, did I?”
“Neither did I.” Says the voice on the telephone.
“Who asked you?” I snap. “We don’t even know who you are. Maybe you’re from that arsekissing record label, maybe you’re that guy on social media who told me to go read a book! Maybe you’re the bastarding Aphex Twin. Maybe this is all just one of your marketing ploys!”
“Chill out, you oddly cynical illiterate.” The voice chided. “How do you get through a day without falling apart?”
“He doesn’t” snickers The Archivist. He takes the record off me and slides the vinyl out of the sleeve. “Shall we give it a listen?”

I drop into my knackered chair, sulking, as the archivist puts the record on the 1200 and places the needle.

“What’s this one called?”
Charnel House” The archivist sits down on his stool by the window and lights a rollie, taking heavy draws and staring into space as his head bobs along with the tune’s fat, wonky, rhythms. I’m not so sold on it, not at first anyway. It seems like a beat and a bass quacking out a rudimentary melody. But when it ends I signal for The Archivist to roll it again. He does and he quickly locks down in time with the groove. It’s growing on me too. Something about its simplicity, the way it blends a certain tongue-in-cheek Super Nintendo vibe with a particular rawness begins to do a job on my brain. Before long we’re all quacking along with it.

“Nice,” I say, and cadge a rollie from The Archivist.
“I liked it too,” The Voice interjects.
“Nobody asked you!” The Archivist snaps. I grin and give him the thumbs up as he turns the record over.

This one, Acid Hearse, feels less knowingly daft but more exploratory, as if it spends the first couple of minutes trying to stake out its territory before it gets going. When it does, though, it fuels itself with a pleasingly early ravey mood that weaves in and out over the top of the breaks. There’s a little flurry of dub techno-ey reverb somewhere in the background. I mention that this is the best way to do dub techno. The Voice on the phone sounds a bit piqued. The Archivist gives me a look.

“This isn’t dub techno.”
“I know that. I never said it was. I said that there’s something a wee bit dubby now and again.”
He shrugs. “That’s your opinion. I like it.”
“I like it too. It’s got a bit of cheekiness to it without losing sight of something a bit more meaty. It sounds fresh.”
“Fresh.” Something in the way The Archivist intones the word gets my hackles up but I stay quiet. So does The Voice, strangely.

“Shall we do another one?” Asks the Archivist.
“Nah. I’m tired now and it’s getting dark. I’m hungry. Let’s order a curry.”
“I’d rather have pizza.”
“What about me?” The Voice whines from across its infinite distance.
“Nobody care about you” We both shout at the same time. I hang up the phone. The Voice doesn’t call back.

Monrella: Process and Report EP (Berceuse Heroique)

I should have probably written about this one last week when I did the repress stuff but, y’know, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Ok, the background is that this is essentially the first two Monrella 12″s from the mid nineties whacked together into one easily digestible EP. Well, I say easily digestible but that might not be entirely accurate. Monrella was one of the nom-de-plumes of Mick Harris, one time drummer for the legendary Napalm Death, and Extreme Noise Terror, and a creative force of nature who also released some pretty outstanding work as Scorn, Lull, and Trace Decay as well as collaborating with such luminaries as Anthony Rother and Meat Beat Manifesto. Given all of that you’d probably expect the music here to be of the kill-em-all-ask-questions-later variety. You’d only be partly right.

There is no doubt that the four tunes here would naturally be at home on something like Jeff Mill’s Live At The Liquid Rooms mix CD. They’re natural bedfellows not only of Mills’ own brand of molten 90’s slammers, but also of the likes of Surgeon. Each of them carries considerable heft, and propel themselves along with the sort of absolutely huge, planetary kick drums which used to be all over the place before techno producers got together and decided they wanted their beats to sound like a finger click surrounded by cold chip-fat. These are vast tunes, and disturbingly lively.

But they are also full of unexpected subtlety, and little glimmering touches of shade and contrast. While the beats steam right on, everything else helps to add definition to the movement, shaping something which is far less monolithic than it has any right to be. Process 2, for instance, is ablaze with the colour of early morning light, the riff both simple and to the point but holding a mirror to the grooves; accelerating and controlling the gathering storm but always keeping the murk from closing in. Report, a fraction slower, throws a curve ball in the form of a woozy, lop-sided lead which lends the tune the vibe of a ride in a demented fairground, the strange journey punctuated by sparse handclaps and frosty percussion.

That they sound of-their-time is probably unavoidable, but I think it’s also partly the point. Techno and its DNA have altered so much over the last 20 years, and it has done so in a way that sometimes makes it difficult to notice until you are once again confronted with its earlier form. A tune like Fixed, forever prowls around in that section of the brain where I hold my definitions of techno; angular, buckling, and edgy with a nervous energy, it sums up so much of what I want techno to be. Process 1 is like a slingshot back in time, but one which reminds you that the grimy snarl which used to be such a regular thing is nothing to be afraid of – particularly when you remember that the energy of these tunes were entirely predicated upon their desire to make you move, to get you on the floor. Not only is this dance music of the most stark sort, it’s dance music that isn’t embarrassed about that fact. There’s a lesson here, but only if you’ve got the guts to learn.

Reviews Ahoy! Dead Sound – This Is Human (Null+Void Recordings); CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

CEM3340 – Perfect Stranger (Lunar Orbiter Program)

A first album for the shadowy electro act lands on Lunar Orbiter Program, brining with it a collection of tunes that burn through the harsher parts of the genre’s last 20-odd years without offering much new information to that which you might have gleaned from the two previous EPs. The blend of electro culled from the harder end of the spectrum, and run through a heavier lo-fi take on the basic sound than we usually hear in the genre, is immediately pleasing. As are CEM 3340’s grooves, many of which recall the likes of old-schoolers such as Posatronix and similar Detroit technobass heroes, as well as newer acts like Go Nuclear and Detroit’s Filthiest, in their floor shattering simplicity and movement. I’ve spoken before about the suspicion that the music is a little too perfect, a little too designed to push the buttons of old bastards like me, but I’ve mostly made my peace with that. When the tunes are as solid as this, who cares about anything other than the end result?

The breakbeat tracks here are every bit as grimy and thrilling as you would expect. Tunes like Shadow Of A Blond, and Story Of An Egyptian Man, are big hitters; thick bass and crunching beats; melodic touches serve to accent the pumping rhythms. It’s a template that works well throughout, even if it is occasionally a little short on true invention. This mix of new school methodology and old school kicks finds its peak on the relentlessly wriggling I Can’t Get Wrong where a low slung bass holds court and the razor-edged pads hold you at knife point.

When the album deviates from the breaks, it moves onto less certain ground. Jammin’ In The Dark, and Platform Discovery pitch themselves towards the more Body Music end of the proceedings and lack the fizzing energy which make the pure electro hitters so fine. Tormented Man struggles under a thick bass that isn’t nearly as precise as it needs to be for the task at hand, and the tune ends up orbiting the sand-blasted landscape of the sort of wonky, vageuely weird techno that flickered briefly in the 90s. Not a bad tune, just underwhelming compared to the high promise elsewhere in the album.

Dead Sound – This Is Human (Null+Void Recordings)

Dead Sound’s previous work has mostly been found in the world of harder techno, and scattered across a host of like-minded labels such as Perc Trax, Gynoid, and DSNT, but this first release on Null+Void reveals a far more rounded and looser sound. While it’s interesting to see what established electro acts take from elsewhere, we don’t really tend to talk about what other genres take from us; This Is Human provides some interesting insights to that conversation.

Of course, it’s not all electro, and the one straight-up techno piece, title track This Is Human is a fine, borderline-sleazy knockabout replete with a frayed, gurning, vibe which lollops pleasingly in subterranean shadows. Neither builder nor peaktime, it simply bounces back and forth, happy just to entertain itself. It’s a lot of fun, and there seems to be less and less tunes we can say that about these days.

From the point of view of our usual geekiness, though, it’s the other tracks which offer something closer to home. First Line is both the most serious and the most evocative. Perhaps it’s the way it skirts around the edge of a loose take on IDM, but it feels like a gateway rather than the journey itself. Having said that, there is something about its slow build and it’s retrained box of sounds and tricks which emphasises a particularly anxious tautness that manages to both energise the track and pick up the slack left by the underweight beats.

I Want You feels at first as if it should be flickering around the same neighbourhood as First Line, but instead it pulls at loose threads of classic electro and weaves them into new fabrics with which to dress up a tight, noirish, mover. This is a great tune, sounding as it does like the theme from some bleak Scandinavian thriller about murderous shenanigans set against a high-tech back story. Luckily, it doesn’t overdo the vibe, and locks it all down with some fine, very low slung grooves. Fair, finally, goes for broke, dragging in something of This Is Human’s joyful wobble with a rolling breakbeat and coming out at the daylight end with a smile on its huge, daft face. And, like the rest of the EP, what it might lack in a bona fide stand out moment, it makes up for with simple and effective funk.

Clearing The Decks: Part 2 In A Sort Of Occasional Series.

Wait, what do you mean there’s more? Nah mate, I’ve just written one of these and now you want me to spaff on and on about Kon001, Ultradyne, Binaural, and Sweely? Are you mad? OK then, let’s get it going. Can I do this from the pub?

Ultradyne – Ocular Animus (Pi Gao Movement)

The Detroit electro outfit return with their first release in going on three years – not counting last year’s repress of the Antartica album. While it would be nice to see them being a bit more active, you can pretty much forgive all that the moment a new record arrives in your hands because, simply, there is no one else who sounds quite like them. This is another master class in slightly cracked but utterly compelling Detroit fuelled electro. It seems prudent to give the warning that it might not be for everyone, though, particularly the sprawling, de-constructed, winter beauty of Reflex Movement No. 4, a tune which seems less like music and more like a sonic rorschach test. The other two tracks are moderately more sane, with the beguiling, spinning, Suicide Relay stripping away all of contemporary electro’s baggage to reveal the genre’s glowing soul. Please buy it now. It’s one of the best this year so far.

Binaural – Mescla (Dream Ticket)

Binaural have been around since the late nineties, making their debut with the highly regarded Unison on the legendary Djax and following it up with a body of work sooooo slender it pretty much becomes invisible in strong light. They unexpectedly reappeared last year with the excellent Prisms LP and seem to be ramping up their presence with this, their first EP in 13 years. It orbits a similar mass to Radioactive Man, or Sync24, in the sense that this is electro of a particular vintage where extraneous fluff is blown away to better reveal the tight rhythmic workouts which lie at the heart of every tune. Occasionally, though, this approach does leave the tracks a bit sparse in terms of emotion, as if they lack an obvious centre beyond the bounce of the beats. Even so, Mescla wears its heart joyously on its sleeve. Director’s deceptively potent mix of Dopplereffekt style grooves and old school story telling lends it a moody sense of emotion, but it’s Qwerty’s empty, wrong-side-of-midnight, scamper which raises the game – and the atmosphere – to unexpected heights.

Sweely – Les Chroniques De Monsieur Montana Part II (Concrete Music)

I’m always a little bit suspicious of music which elicits an immediate liking, as if there is something in its willingness to please which suggests there might not be much beyond first contact to hold your attention. Of course, this is largely because I’m a bit of an arsehole who sees disappointment beyond every corner, but it’s an occasionally useful strategy for separating the pretenders from the real deal. A good record will blow you away, but a great record will still blow you away years down the line. Les Chroniques De Monsieur Montana Part II is a bit of a mix; electro, house, jazz, funk, and little thrills n fills from elsewhere are condensed into a slick pack of prowlers which echo with a sense of homage for a music that never really existed. Straight of the bat, it delights in its winding takes and sensual grooves in a way that occasionally recalls fellow French genius/legend St. Germain, particularly on the languid Ambassadors Of The Jungle. Elsewhere Sweely sidesteps what, in other hands, may have been the temptation to dive into the lazy world of dull, chunky, disco to colour the music with true deep night, lounge-house textures which open up the sound to a wider, far more interesting world. More Love rolls with a coy, heartbreaking vibe that’s all understated chords and throbbing bass. No More Salad goes even further, latching onto a deliciously tight, cheeky groove which reminds me of Neneh Cherry for some reason. Lovely. So, yep, it’s a pretty good record. If you want to know whether it’s a great one though, check back in three years time and I’ll let you know.

Kon001 – 65489 CETO (Pulse Drift Recordings)

Confession time: I’ve had this kicking around for a while by mistake, having stupidly convinced myself that I’d already reviewed it. Such is the danger of being a one-idiot operation who relies heavily on scribbling things down on the back of unpaid leccy bills and hoping that counts as living an ordered life. What the content of that non-existent review was, I couldn’t tell you, but if I was writing it now (which, you know, I am) I’d point out that Kon001’s mix of Stingray’s ERBB4 was my tune of the year a while back, and was a gorgeous, accessible, reimagining of what was a wonderful but fairly obtuse tune. I’m not entirely sure, but this would appear to be Kon001’s actual, full d├ębut, and it’s somehow not what I expected on the back of that one, miraculous, remix. On first listen I thought it too slick, too ready to sacrifice rhythms and grooves for melody and straight-ahead structure. On successive listens that feeling alleviates somewhat – although it’s never entirely laid to rest – and once your ears realign to the dominant frequencies it develops a fierce sense of itself. While it’s very much electro in tone, it frequently dives away from that to wrap itself up in Detroit techno as much as anything else. The truth is that 65489 CETO is a record which does put the melody of emotion, mood, and tone, ahead of a more pugnaciously rhythmic heart, but in doing so it evokes a type of deep-space soul which we don’t hear quite as much of as we used to. While UW Colony XY70S’ harder electro-funk may be the one that us grumpy old purists gravitate towards first, the real meat on the EP is best summed up in USO’s sedate, wide-angled investigation into collapsing melodies and bigger-than-life motifs. The big moment for me, though, is in Project Lyra 705’s oort cloud bop; a tune that feels as if it was shot into space in the late 70’s and it only now broadcasting back to an Earth. When it stops trying too hard, and lets the music breathe instead, 65489 CETO is a pretty good record.