Friday, March 9, 2012

My International Top 5, with apologies to Antarctica & South America

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm pleased to introduce to you the newest member of our higher ed music critics collective, Aaron M. Hill (nom de tweet: @aaronmhill). For his introductory post, Aaron gives us a whirlwind tour of his favorite musicians from around the globe. Welcome, Aaron, to our merry band. I look forward to more of your posts. - AC

Generally speaking, I dislike superlatives because I find that “favorites” come and go, so for this post, I thought I would put a little spin on it: what follows is a favorite artist from each continent, excluding Antarctica (the Amundsen-Scott Jug Band is still working on their debut album), and South America which I have yet to find a favorite on, and don't want to be all "Oh yeah, I've been following Pasa el Paseo forEVER, and by forever I mean 5 minutes ago", because I'm not a jerk. And I like cookies. and pizza.



So, in alphabetical order by continent...

Africa: Hossam Ramzy
While his music seems to always be classified as “bellydance music”, a mundane label for the cultural music of the Bedouin. Ramzy possess a talented mastery for the darbuka and tabla, and “collaborations with jazz musicians earned him the nickname ‘the Sultan of Swing’”[1]. I actually discovered Ramzy, an Egyptian performer, and Sarit Hadad, an Azerbaijani / Israeli vocalist that’s also a skilled darbukist, at the same time on a peer--... um... the... Internet (coincidentally, that was also how I discovered the artists from Asia and Europe mentioned below).

Chances are, you’ve heard him before though you may not have realized it: Ramzy performed alongside Jimmy Page & Robert Plant on their Unledded reunion album; he was also featured on the soundtracks of the recent Conan the Barbarian and Prince of Persia movies. If you like the genre but prefer to have singing, check out Sarit Hadad and Karen Nawali.
Asia: The Black Mages / Nobuou Uematsu
If the phrase “Final Fantasy” calls to mind exciting storylines, swordplay, giant birds, and lush landscapes rather than porn and/or snuff films, then this band’s for you.

The Blackmages are a progressive rock band fronted by Nobuou Uematsu, the composer for most (all? everything up to XIII I think) of the music from the Final Fantasy video game series. The band was active from 2002 to 2010 and released three full-length albums, all covering the highlight themes from the Final Fantasy series, over a dozen published games in the series, at this point. Uematsu later formed a new bound, the Earthbound Papas with two members of the former Black Mages; this was largely due to licensing issues with Square-Enix, which imposed some creative restrictions on the material they were permitted to play.

As a longtime fan of arrangements of video game themes, especially the Final Fantasy series, this band has a special place in my heart; but I could also see someone who knew nothing of the game music, but enjoyed progressive Rock (think Dreamtheater, or a modern-day Rush without the vocals) could also get into this band.
  • Matoya’s Cave (from The Skies Above, adapted from a theme originally in FFI; bluesy) 
  • The Decisive Battle (from the eponymous first album, adapted from FFVIII; power metal; I'm no musicologist, but I'm pretty sure this is using a non-standard meter, I am guessing 6/8 time?) 
  • Premonition (from Darkness and Starlight, adapted from FFVIII; prog. metal) 
  • Cloud’s Theme (from Final Fantasy S Generation, Uematsu arranged; orchestral) 
Australia: Pendulum
A breakout from the early 00s rave scene, Pendulum has found a way to transmute their Drum & Bass roots into a full on live performance. Originally formed in Perth, Australia and now living in London, Pendulum was first known for their fast-moving drum & bass tracks, featuring scowling, distorted, darkstep basslines and a syncopated hi-hat groove that was a staple on many of their early works (Another Planet, Vault, Masochist; heard that last one for the first time live in Atlanta at the Planet of the Drums tour and it about floored me. "Silence got blown apart" indeed!).

With their first full-length album, Hold Your Colour (2005), Pendulum explored the drum & bass genre more fully, casting aside the darkstep elements for high-energy anthems such as Blood Sugar and the title track, as well as the more liquid / intelligent drum & bass flavors of Sounds of Life and Streamline.

In 2008, Pendulum released In Silico, and began their transformation into a live performance act. Trading in a few BPMs for some guitar riffs and vocals, Pendulum suddenly became capable of a wider appeal. While a solid release, this album is more stylistically similar to Hold Your Colour than it is to their earliest works, which were released only on 12” singles, though it still packs similar energy.
  • Vault (A-side from 2003, the darkstep basslines kick in at 1:49; syncopated hi-hats at 2:03) 
  • Hold Your Colour (from Hold Your Colour, 2005 - track explodes at 1:08) 
  • The Tempest (from In Silico, 2008, but performed live at Brixton Academy - an absolutely epic song incorporating both metal and drum & bass elements) 
  • Streamline (from Hold Your Colour, 2005 - a nice liquid drum & bass groove) 
Europe: Guano Apes
Guano Apes is rock band from Germany that never quite took hold in the states. IMHO they are an underrated alt-rock powerhouse from the late 90s / early 00s, fronted by the beautiful and powerfully-voiced Sandra Nasic. If you are a fan of the Metallica-covering cellists Apocalyptica you might remember her as a featured guest on their song Path, Vol. 2, where the strength of her voice explodes in force on the chorus.

The band broke up nearly 10 years ago, and Nasic pursued a solo career for a while, though her solo stuff was largely more pop-sensible. Since the band reunited in 2009, they have released one additional album, and Nasic seems to have brought some of her new-found pop sensibilities back in from the wilds. (Think Morningview by Incubus versus S.C.I.E.N.C.E., by the same).

Over the past ten years, I've met 2 other Americans that had already heard (and enjoy), the Apes, and it's always a really cool experience to find out that other people know about them. (SO zOMG IF YOU HAVE ALREADY HEARD OF THEM WE CAN TOTALLY BE BFFFFFFF!)

While my hopes for a similar followup to their solid Walking on a Thin Line 2003 release have yet to manifest, their first three albums have more than enough material to sustain in the meantime. Some of my favorites include:
  • Quietly (from Walking on a Thin Line, the video takes an awesome turn around 1:10) 
  • Break the Line (featured on MTV2, which I believe is the limit to their American exposure) 
  • Open Your Eyes (from their debut album Proud like a God
  • Pretty in Scarlet (a softer, more acoustic, side for the band, though the subtext of the video shows a pretty hilarious edge of macabre humor) 
North America: BT
Short for Brian Transeau, BT is an electronic music producer whose career stretches back to the early 1990s, in the infant years of the American Rave scene. While his name became well known among party kids for his contributions to the Trance genre, he has since become more mainstream, fathering both the soundtrack for the academy-award winning movie Monster (2004) and finally a Grammy nomination in 2010 for his These Hopeful Machines album.

Stylistically, it’s difficult to pigeonhole BT’s work into a single branch of electronic music; ie. he is not just a “trance producer”, despite what his last name suggests. His work ranges from genres including: hip-hop with a digital edge, synthetic rock, drum & bass, ambient, and a whole slew of other subgenres. The common thread is that it is typically produced electronically, although he will often play real instruments during his live performances. He is probably best known for characteristically using (overusing?) an audio processing technique known as the “stutter edit”. You’ll know it when you hear it. He may or may not have officially invented this editing technique, but he does own the patent for the live performance audio plug-in.

His early trance works drew me in, particularly his Forbidden Fruit collaboration with German trance DJ/producer Paul Van Dyk and Mercury & Solace from the album Movement in Still Life (1999), or pretty much the entire ESCM album, but I stayed for the artfully crafted soundscapes of his other works. As a formally-trained musician, his work shows a clear mastery of the craft. I suggest whetting your appetite with:
  • Never Gonna Come Back Down (ft. Mike Doughty, formerly of Soul Coughing; a drum & bass infused single from Movement in Still Life, 1999) 
  • Firewater (trip-hop with natural elements; think Enigma but a touch more aggressive, from ESCM, 1997) 
  • Forbidden Fruit (Food of Love mix) (collab with Paul Van Dyk, 1997 - an all-time favorite, definitive of the late 90s trance genre) 
  • Knowledge of Self (a progressive house track with a hip-hop groove from Emotional Technology, 2003)

    What's your continental 7...or 5...or  3? 1? Who am I missing out on from South America or Antarctica?


    1. About to out myself as the narrow-minded U.S.-centric musical philistine that I am, since I've never heard of any of these artists before reading your post. But here are my favorites from the continents:

      Africa - Vieux Farka Toure, a Malian-born guitarist, the son of the more renowned Ali Farka Toure. Both father and son are (were) amazing fingerpickers who did wondrous things with alternate tunings. But since Ali is no longer alive, I give the nod to his son. Here's a short video of Vieux playing Bamako Jam.

      Asia - Carsick Cars. If you wonder whatever happened to No Wave and noise punk from the late '70s-early '80s New York scene, it's alive and well in Beijing, China's Carsick Cars. You Can Listen, You Can Talk (video) is a fine example of this band's Sonic Youth-inspired style.

      Australia - Midnight Oil, of course. After all these years, Dead Heart (video) remains one of the most haunting and evocative tunes to come out of the Aussie punk scene.

      Europe - A one-hit wonder (at least in the states), Plastic Bertrand. This European new waver's big song, Ca Plane Pour Moi (video), wasn't exactly a hit, but it did make the FM college radio airwaves in the early 1980s, and that's where I first discovered this individual. Born in Belgian to a French father and Ukranian mother, he represents the very worst Europe has to offer musically. Which is why he is the perfect pick for the best Eurotrashy musician for my list.

      North America - Pass.

    2. Nice, Andrew -- it was a little awkward to realize that I did not know of any artists from South America and had to really struggle with Africa (even Asia was a little tricky). It made me realize that I should really expose myself to more music from those continents more; I'll start with your suggestions!

    3. Welcome abroad Andrew. Big fan of a global music fan to the fold.

    4. Wow, you know a lot of stuff that I don't. Welcome, anyway!