The Cinematic Orchestra [London]

Adam Green
The Cinematic Orchestra

The Cinematic Orchestra's rapid evolution as one of the strongest forces standing on the wall between jazz and electronic music is even more idiosyncratic in that the band has also been steadily reducing the concoction until it's reached a crackling, steady simmer.

The Cinematic Orchestra

Ma Fleur

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2007-06-05
UK Release Date: 2007-05-07

Improvising in a Scripted Environment

In an era when technology enables people to write music without ever touching an instrument, it is no surprise that the tunes often lack the associated components -- melody, chord sequences, and technical proficiency. It is for that reason that Motion, the Cinematic Orchestra’s 1999 release on Ninja Tune, was notable. It broke new ground by combining sample, digital, and loop techniques with technically assured, improvisational jazz.

The architect of the Cinematic Orchestra, Jason Swinscoe, managed to integrate technology and jazz with clarity and confidence, and against great odds. Miles Davis and Teo Macero made a valiant attempt on Get Up With It via tape splicing techniques, as did Steve Reich, but the technology wasn’t behind them. In the 1960s, everyone did everything they could to sound whacky. However, whereas rock and folk records gained definition as much by recording methods as the style of playing, jazz has remained essentially ‘live’ (compare Kind of Blue, recorded in a little over 48 hours, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, taking over a thousand). It is for this reason that the attempt to combine jazz with edits and put improvisation through the stilted, abstract kaleidoscope of a microchip is so full of promise and difficulty. Nonetheless, Swinscoe’s appropriation of new technology combined with an obvious reverence for jazz and funk, a facility for arrangement, and a very able band resulted in a record of energy and polish, a soundtrack to life between city and night.

It was followed three years later by the calmer Everyday; a lush, cleanly conceived record. Straightforward but engaging chords and melodic, arresting bass lines combined with gadgetry and tastefully minimal synthesisers and horns. Choice vocals from Roots Manuva and Fontella Bass also contributed to a progressive, accessible record. At times it teetered on the edge of ‘lounge jazz’, insofar as it was soothing and ambient, but there is an undeniable design and subtlety to the record. It was never clear, however, where the Cinematic Orchestra would turn next, as there was no doubt they were heading for contentment. For all its charms, Everyday could not be described as an urgent record, and lacked the unease that characterised Motion. Would TCO go the way of Zero 7 and Groove Armada and churn out dull chill-out blandola, or would they return with something as fresh and daring as Motion?

A five-year gap has ensued since Everyday, during which time Jason Swinscoe dwelt in New York and Paris, and travelled to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Kenya. One gets the impression that this was partly to take a break, but also to draw in new inspiration, a literal change of scenery. "Your environment has a massive impact on you," Swinscoe says, "what’s around you, the beauty and the sounds that you hear everyday. If you are in the Sahara you are going to write a very different record than if you were in London. I’d say Paris definitely influenced the record, in that sense, the tonality of it and of course it’s more romantic and sensual." In many regards, this fairly lengthy hiatus was necessary to ensure that when he returned for the ‘difficult’ third album (in apostrophes since what album isn’t difficult?), he would have moved onto unfamiliar ground. Word that he had recruited Patrick Watson, perhaps Canada’s finest contemporary singer-songwriter, worked to fan the flames of anticipation.

The Cinematic Orchestra's latest album, Ma Fleur, released this May, is the outcome, and represents a confident step. Within seconds of the opener, "To Build a Home", it’s obvious we are on unfamiliar ground. It is a ‘song’ in the old-fashioned sense and, Swinscoe claims, a synopsis of the whole record. The lyrics are unlike any found on earlier TCO tracks -- more detailed, and imparting a story. Patrick Watson’s vocals are probably the most unusual and touching I’ve heard since Jeff Buckley, and the arrangement services the song perfectly; a sad piece about loss, friendship and sanctuary. In fact, "To Build a Home" wipes the floor with "Hey Jude".

It is clear from this and what follows that TCO have produced a more emotional, acoustic record. Swinscoe states, "I wanted to achieve something more musical, in the song form. To take out the drums, and the overtly soul-jazz club thing, take out the Ninja references, and do something for everybody. Overall, I wanted to accentuate the minimalism that was in Everyday but probably overshadowed."

He has certainly done that. Double bass and drums are far less dominant. They do feature, with both Luke Flowers’ intricate, technical rhythms and Phil France’s driving bass-lines providing trademark elements of the Cinematic sound, but on the whole it is the piano, voice, and guitar that form the main ingredients of Ma Fleur. This makes it a surprisingly stripped album, and, in places, one of stark beauty. In addition to the opener, "Breathe" and "Into You" are beautiful compositions, musically -- austere and emotive. All this is augmented by superb vocal performances throughout from Patrick Watson and Fontella Bass, making Ma Fleur an at times touching record, with a charming childishness and honesty, qualities nowhere more evident than on the title track itself, which was, Swinscoe tells me, "the breakthrough."

Photo by Martin Leitner

In places, though, the record moves from spirit to hot air. Sections drift past without breaking a sweat, while the edits, once daring and unexpected, sometimes serve to add curls of atmosphere rather than manipulate the playing. This is a pity, since it was the constraint that digital control held over live performance that marked out their previous two records.

The reason for this change of heart, Swinscoe informs me, is that Ma Fleur has a new priority -- an emphasis on lyricism, storytelling, and the "song form." To pursue these dimensions, he worked with a scriptwriter who developed a narrative love story based on a handful of characters, inspired by what he heard from an early burn of the record. This is a continuation of the commissioned project TCO received after touring Everday. Swinscoe and the band were approached to develop Man With a Movie Camera, a work of music composed to Djigavertov’s 1929 Russian film of the same title. They performed to the silent film around the world, often playing in the theatre pit, below the screen.

"It’s interesting because you are working with an artefact, in that case an already completed artefact. That artefact, whether it’s a film or script, in the case of Ma Fleur, stimulates the music, which stimulates images, which stimulates lyrics... film has less boundaries, less rules have been laid down."

Of course, there is a significant difference between writing to a long-ago finished film and developing a script alongside a record. In both cases, though, whether film or script, the extra medium provides a limitation, framework, or sense of reference. "It tied the record down, and was a template for arranging and defining the music."

While this is an interesting strategy, the content of this script doesn't always come across as strongly as it might. With the exception of the opening track, the lyrics are too vague to convey meaning. This is purposeful, since Swinscoe wants the listeners to fill in the gaps and imagine the story, but lyrics need to set a scene and mark out the grounds of meaning, otherwise they grant the imagination nothing to work with.

But if the subsequent attempt to develop a script for Ma Fleur occasionally flounders, taken as part of a three-album discography Ma Fleur is still a great deal more than the Cinematic Orchestra's contemporaries would dare attempt. It demonstrates the forward-thinking, rule-dodging approach that marks out TCO from so many others. To facilitate a change of focus they have removed the dance-hall beats when everyone else is cramming them in, stripped down the instrumentation when other acts are adding strings, and they have cut out the Ninja Tune references just as they have become cool. This third record, then, puts to bed fears that the Cinmeatic Orchestra would ride the wave of earlier success. "I didn’t want to make another Everyday," Swinscoe clams, "because repetition is not an option." Applaudable, since so many other acts repeat themselves ad infinitum, and no one can call this record a repetition.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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