The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy album.pngEDM duo The Chainsmokers took a unique approach to the release of this album, releasing all of its 10 songs one at a time in each month of 2018 (with a couple exceptions). Not professing to be the biggest Chainsmokers fan in the world, all of these songs are new to me now that the full project has an official release. On their sophomore project Sick Boy, the duo takes a seemingly transitional approach, devoting about half the album to even more clones of their biggest hit in “Closer” and half to trying to find new sounds. One of the most disheartening things to me about the group is that they clearly have the capacity to be talented and creative, but spend most of their time watering down their sound and catering to what they think we want to hear – and as their latest sales reflect, that’s not always retreads of the same thing forever. There are a couple moments on this project where they hit a new and exciting groove, but most of it is diluted by their adherence to the same melodramatic lyrics and repetitive, sanitized and contemplative “dance” breaks.

The duo recruit their only big-name feature in country star Kelsea Ballerini on the opening track “This Feeling”, which just feels like a logical continuation of trying to recreate as many different versions of the same hit as they can, using what sounds like exactly the same swelling synth chords building up to the dance breakdown, replacing a few instrumental elements with strummed acoustic guitars instead as Drew Taggart debuts with his female counterpart over a repetitive chorus melody consisting of little more than a few adjacent notes. It’s a perfectly passable pop song, you just wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from literally anything else if it were playing in the background. If there’s anything I really do have to hand to The Chainsmokers, it’s their ability to create a distinctive and influential signature sound – I just need to hear some variety here and there.

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The next track “Beach House” – which is literally named after the laid-back indie dreampop duo that the sound of the track was influenced by – doesn’t fare much better, dropping into a copy-pasted half-time and explosive yet brief dance segment interspersed between Taggart’s underwritten calls out to a girl. The track “You Owe Me” as well, despite being one of the catchiest here, was clearly inspired directly from the Twenty One Pilots repertoire, continuing to display the duo’s dearth of original ideas. The lyrics only get more awkwardly histrionic later on. Taggart adopts this kind of overwrought emo cadence for the whole duration of the album, really leaning into the ever-present idea that his words addressing the basics of life are much more poignant than they really are, but it all comes to a breaking point on the title track “Sick Boy” where he takes it so far it almost sounds like he’s faking a British accent. “How many likes is my life worth?”, Taggart emotes, trying to make some kind of a political statement with disjointed buzzwords and criticizing narcissism on an album full of it.

The duo collaborate with fellow DJs Aazar and NGHTMRE as the album winds down on the tracks “Siren” and “Save Yourself”, two tracks that inexplicably recall the peak of Skrillex-fronted brostep and come across as incredibly dated. “Siren” in particular sounds identical to the form and synth textures of how Skrillex used to structure his drops – the duo clearly think they’re evolving, switching it up, but they’ve gone so far backward into a sound I never thought I’d hear again.

I call this a transitionary project due to the legitimate presence of some new ideas here, most of which are actually pretty good. The last track to be released on this project, “Hope”, featuring the subtly beautiful vocals of Winona Oak, finally switches up the rhythmic structure of a Chainsmokers track with some Prismizer-esque layering of her vocals and a marimba-esque synth tone that enhances the flow with some syncopated cascading melodies. The way the pre-chorus returns at the end of the song, interspersing with the more upbeat section of the track which is allowed to continue instead of cutting short, is another obvious exercise in song structure that the duo should have tried long ago that really completes the track.

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Frequent collaborator Emily Warren lends her vocals to the track “Side Effects”, a much darker track than we’re used to from the duo featuring some fuzzy synth-bass and a much more driving style – those piano chords in the background are an unexpected detail that completes the mix. Warren actually drops a pretty great rap verse as well, and the high-octane nature of the track when she hits her energetic peak is something completely new for the duo. “Everybody Hates Me”, if you can ignore Taggart’s return to some whiny, suffering-from-success sob stories that rival Drake at his absolute worst, features a pretty fun synth breakdown as well that represents another rhythmic switch and reminds me of the legitimately thrilling drop of their last truly great track, “Roses”.

Sick Boy represents the slightest of steps up from their debut project, and it’s good to see that they’re at least entertaining the idea of varying their sound a bit more. Still, there are way too many of their old, insufferable tricks here to justify repeat listens.

Favourite Tracks: Hope, Side Effects, You Owe Me

Least Favourite Track: Somebody

Score: 4/10

MØ – Forever Neverland

MØForeverNeverland.jpegNot typically an albums artist, Danish electropop singer and frequent EDM collaborator MØ releases her sophomore studio album and first since 2014, though she did drop the When I Was Young EP last year. Forever Neverland is a mostly enjoyable collection of shimmery uptempo dance-pop influenced tracks, MØ shining through with the unique vocals that make the tracks she’s featured on stand out so much. Her crackly tone always makes for an interesting listening experience, and often in collaboration with a few superstar DJs and producers across the board here, creates a selection of club-ready, fun tracks. There are a few misses here and there, but for the most part this is something to turn your brain off and enjoy.

After a brief intro, the first track “Way Down” immediately drops into the overdone dancehall beat that backs up most dance-pop songs at the moment, but almost as soon as it begins MØ overrides the sense of over-familiarity with some anthemic and layered group vocals building up to a speedy drop featuring a great, bouncy synth bassline. MØ distorts the formula just enough to create something that you can enjoy for being tried-and-true and easy to consume, with the slightest of twists. The primary writer on all of these tracks, MØ knows how to craft a catchy melody – the next track “I Want You” is instantly memorable, with some rapid-fire lyrics and a melody that’s simultaneously repetitive and impressively showing off her range. As the instrumental steadily builds up in intensity throughout the track, as she dives into that last chorus and the percussion explodes it’s a powerful and gratifying moment. There are multiple tracks here where MØ follows the Francis and the Lights model of layering her vocals with Prismizer and something about the computerized distortion fits her voice well – it’s employed well on the track “Blur” despite the more disappointingly straightforward instrumental drop afterwards.

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MØ saves all of her big-name collaborations for the album’s middle, kicking off with yet another track with Diplo titled “Sun In Our Eyes”. The dynamic duo team up for one of the most radio-friendly, by-the-numbers pop tracks here, but again, there are still some pop formulas that exist for a reason, and these two are seasoned veterans in following the greatest ones. Diplo provides some full, very summery synth chords here that really wrap MØ’s joyful, celebratory vocals here in the right kind of exuberant musical world – the guy can rarely go wrong. “Mercy”, a team up with former Flume member What So Not, is uncharacteristically low-key for the future-bass artist, built on a few piano chords that highlights a yearning, enormous chorus from MØ that works pretty well as she strains up to some higher notes – some live percussion finally kicks in for the final chorus and it becomes clear just how well-crafted a track it is when all the elements click together. And of course, the similarly sassy Charli XCX appears on “If It’s Over”, a manic and glitchy track where the two confidently kiss off some bad relationships.

Late in the tracklisting, “Imaginary Friend” might be the best track here, actually reminding me of some of Charli’s best work. The chorus instrumental immediately grabs your attention more than the other tracks here, MØ singing in her lower register as a distorted higher-pitched voice echoes her over some synth stabs that quickly cut in and out for a much more rhythmic track. The accompanying rapidly cascading noises and embellishments make it sound like you’re entering a dream sequence and continue to immerse you in the track.

There are definitely a couple tracks here where the formula begins to wear thin, usually the case when putting together a larger number of upbeat, dancier tracks into album format. “Nostalgia” is a track that stands out as being pretty unlistenable in comparison to the quality of most of its counterparts here, bringing back the generic dancehall beat but dropping into a chorus that just seems completely off with the layering and harmonies. She uses the same kind of layered group vocals but they don’t line up as perfectly here, especially when going for such a huge sound with a more percussion-based, minimal instrumental. MØ also delivers some half-rapped, half-casually spoken sections in the verses that just throw off the rhythm of the track and sound awkward. Closer “Purple Like the Summer Rain” feels a little rhythmically disjointed as well, the prominent percussion on the track feeling like it’s too fast for the vocals in front at times.

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A few songs just fall barely short of expectations as well, like the track “Beautiful Wreck” which features what might be the best build-up on the album with some Zedd-style vocal manipulations that culminates in a lackluster and low-impact drop, or “Red Wine” that features an enjoyable reggae flavour that breaks up some of the dance-pop monotony but features some stranger lyrics in the chorus that takes me out of it. These tracks are still pretty good, but it just makes it more evident that the creation of tracks like these can be low-effort at times.

Forever Neverland is a much more enjoyable collection of tracks than most in her genre – it’s never easy to put such high-octane music into an album format without it feeling exhausting after a while – and that’s a testament to her approach and personality being a lot more individual than her counterparts as well. Teaming up with some veteran hitmakers here, one of the most prominent voices in the dance scene keeps on rolling.

Favourite Tracks: Imaginary Friend, I Want You, Sun In Our Eyes, Mercy, Way Down

Least Favourite Track: Nostalgia

Score: 7/10

RL Grime – Nova

Image result for rl grime novaElectronic musician RL Grime, fluent in the sounds of future bass, drum ‘n’ bass, and of course grime, defies most EDM artists’ approach to drop a well thought out and cohesive project rather than sporadic singles. Nova is his second full-length, following 2014’s Void, and runs through a high-energy and endlessly fun selection of different sounds and genres, recruiting a great selection of guests as well. Most of these tracks are shell-shockingly heavy with bass and other dominant, flaring synths, and puts RL Grime in a category all on his own by sheer virtue of his ability to craft these tailor-made party tracks that still include a selection of sounds so distinctive and distracting. The transitions and clear album structure, as well, make the usually taxing task of listening to an EDM album, almost an hour straight of one-note dance tracks, much more engaging – though at 15 songs it still does fall victim to a few pitfalls of almost every electronic full-length.

RL Grime has always incorporated elements of trap music into his work, even before the huge boom in popularity of the genre, so he makes an easier transition than most in keeping his brand of EDM relevant to the musical conversation as the mid-2010s brostep wave dies out. The focus on it isn’t huge here, Grime maintaining what makes him unique, but the familiar hi-hats serve as the foundation that Grime builds his dynamic soundscapes on to a successful degree, tracks where hip-hop artists show up some of the best here. “Feel Free” is a great instrumental intro that displays his musicality as it relates to the wonky, perfectly arrhythmic future bass sound – the track is a nice introduction to the rest of his work here, being pretty abrasive immediately but dynamic and experimental enough to surprise the listener as it breaks from formula. I always love when the 2nd drop switches up the sound rather than looping the first half of the song once again.

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As the tracklisting continues, Grime really does show his diversity in running through a lot of different styles here, the album rarely boring to listen to. “Shrine” re-introduces some of his older elements of high-speed drum ‘n’ bass, while “Light Me Up” brings both Miguel and Julia Michaels aboard for a bouncy, tropical pop track, Michaels’ soft and seductive vocals contrasting surprisingly well with the pounding synth line in the chorus.

The following run of 3 hip-hop influenced tracks is where the album hits its experimental and euphoric stride, however. Jeremih’s delivery on “Undo” is intoxicating, flowing smoothly over a traditional rap instrumental before Grime unexpectedly drops a quirky, jagged synth melody that sends the track into an energetic overdrive. “Take It Away” is a track that really shocked me, however. Featuring (2018 MVP?) Ty Dolla $ign, it’s one of the biggest musical sensory overloads I’ve ever experienced. The chorus features these gargantuan sliding synths, elevating upwards like some kind of twisted carnival ride, eerie yet completely celebratory and triumphant, alternating with complete silence as the undeniable effortless cool of Ty holds it all together. The same kind of euphoric, top-of-the world feeling is replicated on “Reims” – something about it just makes you feel powerful. The wailing, distorted vocal sample underscores what can only be described as a strobe light in sound form, a completely in-your-face oscillating synth line. “Pressure” is another great instrumental track, a slightly menacing bassline building to the kind of trademark off-kilter future-bass chorus Grime is known for.

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As is to be expected with an EDM project, a few of these tracks have too many similarities to exist on the same tracklisting together, although I do appreciate how Grime tries to make it appear more than rinse-and-repeat with his transitions. There’s only so much pummelling my senses into submission that I can take in one sitting! Actually though, some of my least favourite tracks on this project are when Grime opts to tone it down a bit. “OMG” is an upbeat and fun track, but it pales in comparison to the previous two similar tracks with hip-hop artists, Joji’s laid back delivery not fitting in as well. “Shoulda” introduces a run of instrumental tracks with a more atmospheric sound bordering on chillwave that takes too long to get to its higher-energy conclusion and doesn’t align with his greatest strengths. “I Wanna Know”, featuring Daya, and “UCLA”, featuring rapper 24hrs, feel out of place tacked onto the end of the tracklisting as well farther away from their counterparts.

Nova is one of the most consistently engaging EDM projects I’ve heard in a while, due to RL Grime’s ability to switch up his style all the while inserting himself in the current musical conversation. It’s easy to see why he’s had staying power over quite a few of his contemporaries who started around the same time, and his creativity and adaptability across the board here make him stand out. I’m sure I’d like it even more in a live setting.

Favourite Tracks: Take It Away, Reims, Pressure, Undo, Feel Free

Least Favourite Track: Shoulda

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Above & Beyond – Common Ground

Image result for common ground above and beyondVeteran British trance trio Above & Beyond meet a wider audience with their fourth studio album, Common Ground, and while they succeed at the genre’s basic aim of calming listeners and absorbing them in an ethereal realm of sound, some of the poppier elements they add here make the album feel increasingly uninteresting, utilizing the same patterns to achieve their aims each time. Above & Beyond’s music is clearly very carefully crafted, each tiny blip of sound in exactly the place it was intended, but ultimately becomes very forgettable, not pushing itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness.

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The project opens with expansive, cinematic synths, drawing listeners in to the slower pace of the project. While the instrumental opener “The Inconsistency Principle” is certainly very beautiful, it’s not something I see myself having any desire to listen to repeatedly. The main thing about Above & Beyond is that their music feels like the kind of widely appealing and yet disposable music that appears as the backdrop to commercials and documentaries.

Some of the greatest moments on the project are when Above & Beyond opt to get a bit more rhythmically complex, a track like “Naked” reaching a thrilling climax in the middle of the chorus as a faster-paced synth arrives to disrupt the slow crawl of the sweeping soundscapes associated with many of these tracks. The best track here is “Sahara Love”, vocalist Zoe Johnston delivering some great harmonies on the soaring chorus as her voice is digitally manipulated in the perfect way. The song sounds less like a dance track than any on this project, relying more on the strength of the vocals and driving guitar riff than tried-and-true formulas of the buildup to a drop and calming, higher-pitched melodic elements.

After getting a few tracks in the formula becomes increasingly evident, as Above & Beyond deploy a constant melodic, shimmering synth line and softer-toned, ethereal vocalist before getting suddenly louder with the same brand of rhythmic, syncopated and danceable synth stabs that have been echoing through EDM sets since the beginning of time. The trio are certainly good at what they do and have settled into a groove that have allowed them to conquer in their specific niche, but the best dance music is beginning to move past this and discover some new trends. At the end of the day, I’m looking for music that aspires to more creatively than the exact sounds the average rave attendee would want to hear in that moment, exhibiting more of a sense of musical innovation.

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Above and Beyond essentially present themselves as the Coldplay of EDM on this project, with easily consumable charm, frequently eye-rollingly cheesy lyrics and catering their sound to fit arena-sized ambitions. The vocalist Richard Bedford in particular appears a few times to deliver lyrics about boundless happiness, indulging the trio’s most overtly cloying tendencies to their absolute limits. “You can never take my soul” he emotes repeatedly on “Northern Soul”. By the time we reach the middle of the album and some less eventful tracks begin to take over, the nearly 6-minutes without much of a satisfying moment for the amount of restraint a track like “Is It Love? (1001)” shows becomes hard to sit through.

Too many of these tracks begin with a promising melody from the vocalist before the drop hits and Above & Beyond resort to the same EDM tricks we’ve heard far too many times, which might work on the dance floor but fail to make much of an impact on active music listeners. It’s easy to see why the trio have come as far as they have, but Common Ground is too formulaic for me.

Favourite Tracks: Sahara Love, Naked, Cold Feet

Least Favourite Track: Is It Love? (1001)

Score: 4/10

Galantis – The Aviary

Image result for galantis the aviaryElectronic duo Galantis, formed by the union of prominent Swedish pop producers Bloodshy and Style of Eye, have broken through to the mainstream with the release of dancefloor-conquering single “No Money”. A year and a half later, the track appears on the duo’s second studio album, alongside some more sugary, high-octane dance tracks.

The Aviary is built like a standard pop album – scores of writers, repetitive, catchy hooks and the like, but is all infused with Galantis’ trademark vocal manipulation and glitchy, chiptune-emulating drops. For the most part, the album straddles a fine line between cheesiness and euphoria, more often than not falling into the former camp. These are guys who have worked with everyone from Charli XCX to Madonna, and know more than a few tricks to hook listeners into a dumb pop song. On quite a few occasions, however, the duo’s gimmicks just wind up being obnoxious.

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It’s strange – every time one of these songs started, my mind quickly snapped to a position of skepticism as they repeated the same tried and true tactics. This position didn’t change very often, but eventually, a few of them gradually began to win me over. With every party-ready drop and shouted background “hey!”, Galantis are asking you to join them on the dance floor. Galantis at their best is a overwhelming surge of joy stemming from those catchy synth melodies and pounding bass.

At times, the pitch shifting of the vocals makes it tough to identify even the singer’s gender, and while certain effects can get very annoying quickly, I have to say that the intentional namelessness here helped to bring me into the sense of a universal dance party. Tracks like “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Love On Me” take the rare step further, adding a welcome extra dimension to these tracks that pushes them over the edge.

The former slides the listener nicely into a chorus that builds up with some ascending horns and harmonies that sound like they’re straight from a gospel choir. The vocals are soulful and pleading despite their modulation, and as every little guitar riff or synth swell is added, it just widens my smile.

“Love On Me” got me with the steel drums, and then got me even harder with the surprise of keeping that infectious chorus going overtop of the dance drop. I can only imagine what my reaction in the club would have been. “Salvage (Up All Night)” even shows some variation in their dance drops, interestingly basing it around a chopped vocal and switching up the rhythm halfway through. For a band trying to be so fun, you’d think they’d try more fun tricks like this.

Far too many of these tracks feel like a copy and pasted checklist of your standard dance-pop song, sometimes applied without any attention to detail and creating awkward mishmashes like “Girls On Boys”. I expected more from a ROZES feature – she made even The Chainsmokers good – but when the song unexpectedly morphs from a softer-toned ballad with chords that accentuate her voice nicely to an all-out techno attack that comes in a measure too late and repeats an annoying higher-pitched synth melody, it just seems like the duo is relying in their audience to respond to a gimmicky dance breakdown regardless of what it is.

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This sloppiness pops up again on “Hello”, where the vocals seem like a total afterthought over a few piano chords that I’m certain I heard on another track here. They never quite click together rhythmically, as the duo compensates for this by cutting the whole track with a quick swooshing noise and another formulaic dance drop. Galantis’ formula is undoubtedly an effective one on the dance floor, but these tracks sound laughably similar when placed next to each other.

Galantis also don’t seem to understand how much an extended gimmick can bring down one of their songs, but hey – these are the ones that are selling. The vocals are pitched up WAY too high on singles “Hunter” and “No Money”, and getting through these choruses verges on excruciating. “Hunter” especially is one of their most low-key tracks, giving more than enough spotlight to that chorus repeating on and on like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.

I probably shouldn’t be expecting lyricism from a duo that relies so heavily on huge dance breaks, but you can’t help but notice them when they try to calm things down and go for an introspective angle. Wrabel taps right into that well of “aw, shucks” on – somehow – the 2nd track with the terrible title “Written In The Scars” I’ve heard in the past couple weeks (Thanks, The Script).

Ultimately, my feelings on The Aviary are very mixed. The duo display infuriatingly small glimpses into their huge potential. Their “fun” formula is making them very successful at the moment, but that priceless jolt of surprise when they try something different is so much more fun.

Favourite Tracks: Love On Me, Tell Me You Love Me, Salvage (Up All Night), True Feeling

Least Favourite Track: Girls On Boys

Score: 5/10

ODESZA – A Moment Apart

Image result for odesza a moment apartSeattle electronic duo ODESZA’s third studio album comes after some high-profile remixes and extensive touring bringing them some more widespread appeal. Riding the rising tide of softer-toned electronic sounds subbed as chillwave, their latest project A Moment Apart expands upon the sound over the course of its hour-long runtime.

When breaking out of their typical formula and putting in some higher-octane tracks, or reaching across genres to collaborate with individuals like Leon Bridges or Regina Spektor, the duo’s true potential is seen. As the album stretches on, many of their more similar tracks begin to blend together, but ODESZA have certainly created a unique musical world here.

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The project opens with a monologue detailing an astronaut falling in love with the mechanical sounds emanating from his spaceship to preserve his sanity. This seamlessly transitions into the title track, an instrumental piece which features some twinkling piano melodies and swelling synth bass. For whatever reason, it captures the feeling of going to space. If ODESZA are particularly talented at anything, it is this – bringing to mind a vivid sonic picture with their atmospheric sounds. Most of this album feels like one cohesive journey.

A Moment Apart begins strong: Naomi Wild’s vocals are as smooth and pleasant as a typical ODESZA mix on “Higher Ground”. The duo demonstrate their likely talent for pop production by bringing out her best aspects with some triumphant synth chords and deep, booming percussion. “Boy” is another great track, veering closer to future bass with the hardest-hitting production on the album and highly rhythmic synth patterns.

ODESZA at their most energetic and experimental frequently brings me out of the trancelike state their calmer music induces, and the rolling, almost traplike beat here certainly fits. When they put some extra creative aspect in, it always assists greatly – the bossa nova horns and Spanish vocals on “Everything At Your Feet”, or the more organic feel of “La Ciudad”, with its handclaps and chanting crowd.

Another specific thing ODESZA does well is working around their silences as much as their sound. Many of their better tracks briefly cut the music before a bigger explosion, contributing to a more driving energy.

ODESZA successfully alter their sound to accommodate for their guests, even surprising appearances like soul artist Leon Bridges. Dialing back their production, the trademark synth swells rise and fall with his smooth vocals on “Across The Room”. It helps to accentuate one of the catchiest hooks here nicely. They strip back even further when their track is graced by the haunting soprano of Regina Spektor on “Just A Memory”, backing her with only piano and some underlying swells for a truly chilling track.

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ODESZA can mistake repetition for their “chill” aesthetic at times, settling into a groove with an idea that doesn’t necessarily pop as much as other and drawing it out for the full extent of a track. “Late Night” is placed among the more energetic tracks in the early stages of the album, and while I can see what they were trying to achieve with the techno synthbass groove at the forefront, the repetition of the vocals ends up killing the energy.

It’s certainly difficult to make an engaging song that is pure instrumental, and about half the tracks here can fall into this category. ODESZA came up on these slower tracks that are content to revel in a few sparkling chords without much variation, and while there is certainly a time and place for them it’s not incredibly attention-grabbing on such a lengthy album. Tracks like “Meridian”, “Divide” and the especially sluggish “Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings” all wind up sounding too similar and blending into each other.

ODESZA has a few telltale characteristics that pop up on almost all of their songs – particularly those higher pitched and swelling synths that make us feel like we are staring at some great expanse, awestruck. Aspects like these have the potential to really work, and frequently do here, when that little something extra is added in. But too often, it never comes.

ODESZA’s sound is certainly unique and their ability to transport the listener to their own musical world is unmatched. Perhaps if the album was scaled back a bit it would be especially captivating, but at this point I’ll be content with some extended glimpses at the duo’s potential.

Favourite Tracks: Boy, Line Of Sight, Higher Ground, Falls, Across The Room

Least Favourite: Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings

Score: 7/10

Avicii – AVĪCI (01) EP

AVĪCI (01).jpgSwedish superstar DJ Avicii returns with a brief 6-track EP in the wake of commercially underperforming 2015 album Stories and a retirement fake-out. There isn’t a lot of diversion here from the sound that helped him ascend to worldwide status, which is becoming somewhat outdated in the current musical landscape. However, it is nice to have the original pioneer back, even if the folk roots that he draws from have since fallen out of favour on mainstream radio.

Avicii’s formula is a smart one, and with assistance from features like Rita Ora and AlunaGeorge, his brand of folktronica and catchy drops that sound like they belong on a video game soundtrack could easily insert him back into the public eye. There could be a much greater degree of creativity here, but I can’t deny that these energetic and uplifting tracks do their job effectively.

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The album opens with some acoustic chords and a bouncy bassline, as a pleasant tenor voice starts singing about friendship. We could be watching a guy strumming a guitar at a campfire here. Avicii still definitely knows how to tap into this sentimentality, and there isn’t really anyone else in this exact lane.

I really do have to commend him for how he was able to keep some of the aspects of tracks like “Wake Me Up”, but do just enough to modernize his sound as well, especially on “Friend of Mine”. THe voices aren’t overly folksy, the acoustic strumming cuts out at the most climactic portions of the song. It’s a very intelligent approach.

“So Much Better”, a remix of Swedish singer-songwriter Sandro Cavazza’s track, sees him abandon his style the most and tap into some more current EDM trends – there are some definite tropical house influences here as he attacks listeners in a quieter manner like a Kygo or Cashmere Cat. We get a single main synth and some rhythmic bass stabs, and sometimes that’s all we need. He fits quite well into the newer laid-back style. Cashmere Cat actually appears alongside Benny Blanco for “Lonely Together”, but it doesn’t stand out as much due to Rita Ora’s overly poppy vocals.

“You Be Love”, even though I fully recognize how many of the boxes it ticks on the “overly sugary party track” checklist, gets me to submit all the same. It is the most rhythmic track of all, as Clean Bandit-esque synth-piano chords begin pounding away and a quickly oscillating and high-pitched main synth line activates the confetti cannons and the beginning of the party. Billy Raffoul’s slightly gravelly vocals syncopate well with the rhythm and give it a bit of an added dimension of soul. I was very surprised to learn that the track was written by massive country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, who doesn’t seem like she belongs anywhere near this world but has given us some great stuff in the past.

Despite all this, Avicii seems to have forgotten that the first track that got him any recognition was “Levels”, a completely instrumental track. The instrumental bits really still are the best parts of his songs, and for the most part, they end far too abruptly here.

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The release of energy that the track builds up never lasts long enough and ends up making me resent the gimmicky nature of the remainder of the track. Avicii knows that he can rely on a basic formula of wholesome lyrics and a brief infusion of electronic aspects and coast on it. The AlunaGeorge track is basically entirely this without even getting to the drop – it sounds like a more electronic version of a track like Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me”. That’s how overly saccharine some of this stuff gets, as Avicii uses their childlike voices to maximum effect.

Even on a very short 6-track EP, it feels like Avicii’s old tricks grow tiresome quickly. Buy the time “Without You” comes on and we get the 4th track in a row of a voice with some indie inflections singing a very basic melody over an acoustic guitar, eventually being taken over by a massive synth breakdown that sounds like a same instruments were being used every time, you begin to tire of all of it and that’s a problem for a project so short.

This is really the underlying problem with doing in-depth reviews on EDM music, because so often the album format is not really how these tracks were meant to be consumed. I’m confident in saying I would lose my mind if any of these came on in a social situation.

Ultimately, these tracks are far from my favourite EDM material I’ve heard this year but they meet my expectations for an Avicii project and I respect what he’s doing. This is supposedly the first EP of 3 that will combine into the album, so I’m excited to see if he takes a few more risks later this year.

Favourite Tracks: You Be Love, Friend Of Mine

Least Favourite Track: Without You

Score: 6/10

Mura Masa – Mura Masa

Image result for mura masa album21-year-old Guernsey-born DJ Mura Masa’s debut studio album is a multicultural and genreless mashup that takes listeners on an exhilarating ride through the twists and turns of his unique style. He states that his biggest influence is Gorillaz and you can clearly tell. The ability to pull aspects from such diverse musical worlds and unbridled creativity with regards to the instrumental that the band is known for comes across here.

Imbued with the newer aspects of the future bass and house music scene that is taking over the nearby United Kingdom, the project comes across as somewhat of a combination between early Gorillaz work and Disclosure’s deep house masterpiece Settle. Make no mistake though, Mura Masa brands everything with his own personal touches and his self-titled debut marks the rise of an exciting young talent.

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The complexity of many of these songs stands out. Even though they often adopt a rather standard song structure that we come to expect from the electronic genre, building up to a drop and such, they possess enough interlocking and unique aspects that it is a refreshing and enjoyable listen throughout. When “Messy Love” progresses to its second drop, we have the central chime melody interlocking with the bouncy bassline, chopped up vocals and the complicated piano riff. All 4 of these things are catchy enough to be used as a main hook, but when they come together it amplifies the vibrant feeling.

Many of these songs are unique because of Mura Masa taking instruments from other cultures that we don’t hear often and making it his defining feature. His songs range from hip-hop to bubblegum pop to deep house to dancehall, but they are all united by modern hip-hop beats and the clinks of marimba, chimes and steel drums that become the defining feature of his sound. I would say we are bringing these things into the mainstream with modernising aspects, but it sounds like this is coming from the future. “Love$ick” is a standout track that features ASAP Rocky jumping around a calypso rhythm that builds up to a huge drop with futuristic synth swings and pitched-up vocals.

Mura Masa uses his guests very well – a lot of these songs can only be described as euphoric when they finally reach their climax, and Mura Masa has harvested a few artists from very different places who also possess this quality. I’m not sure I could have ever expected NAO’s otherwordly R&B vocals, life of the party Charli XCX and trap court jester Desiigner in the same place, but that’s what they all have in common.

It’s easy to get lost and submit completely to someone like Desiigner’s seemingly reckless love of life on “All Around the World”, and Mura Masa brought out the best in him – I didn’t think he had it in him to flow on a beat this rhythmically complex. But it’s “1 Night” that I’m shocked isn’t on every dance floor worldwide. Charli XCX’s recent music has really succeeded in capturing that incredible feeling – the freedom of just letting loose. As she playfully asks “Do you wanna go?”, the music cuts out for a fleeting second, and comes back in full force with a catchy chorus melody of “oh”s, I feel like I’m the centre of attention in the greatest club in the world just sitting in my chair at home.

Image result for mura masa liveLook at this guy’s setup!

It’s this spirit of fun that carries these tracks, and the creative musical aspects only bring me into that world even more. Tracks like “What If I Go?” and “helpline” are pretty poppy in the best way. The electronic sounds are different for a change, and the vocalists just sound like they’re having the time of their lives and beckoning for you to join them. Bonzai’s voice climbs up the scales as she repeats “go, going, going”. It’s a driving, beautiful, infectious energy.

I also have to give a special shoutout to closing track “Blu”, a quieter affair that focuses on a nice harmonized melody from Mura Masa’s hero, Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn. It’s a great way to ease us out of his crazy world.

Because Mura Masa executes the high-octane party tracks so well, it gets a little disappointing when he starts to slow things down at the tail end of the album. But if anything, this just speaks volumes to the strengths of his greatest tracks. After an album full of driving basslines, blaring synths and ecstating choruses, the quieter nature of tracks like “Second 2 None” and “Who Is It Gonna B”, with less of the frenetic and interlocking aspects of their predecessors, sound like standard electronic fare in comparison despite the quality that is still there.

Mura Masa is one of the year’s greatest albums so far, and the fact that it comes from a 21-year old newcomer from a tiny island is pretty exciting. In a world where many DJ’s are just going through the motions, all of the tracks here feel alive, and make you feel the same way.

Favourite Tracks: Love$ick, 1 Night, What If I Go?, helpline, Firefly

Least Favourite Track: Who Is It Gonna B

Score: 9/10