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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

BJÖRK - BIOPHILIA REMIXES (PART ONE TO PART FIVE)

One Little Indian 1137-1136-1144-1143-1147tp12h (April to Nov. 2012)
 

Rating: 5.0-8.0 /C-A (Part 1 to 4); 9.0 /A+ (Part 5)

Category: experimental electronica

Format: Vinyl (150 gram 12-inch singles at 45 rpm)


Creativity: "the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc." [Dictionary.com]


After centuries of music making, it is no easy feat for an artist to stand out and create one's own unique style, especially recently amid the ever growing global community we are all connected to. Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk is that kind of artist. Notwithstanding her 1977 self-titled debut at age eleven, her first official major release - Debut [One Little Indian TPLP31] - now enters its 20 year mark. Since then the diminutive but immensely talented and visionary musician has put out six solo albums at 2 to 4 year intervals; melding electronic sounds and rhythms to her highly original signature voice. Flirting with electronica and gradually veering towards experimentation on her first full-length remix album, 1996s Telegram [One Little Indian TPLP51T], this newfound direction reached its zenith in 2001 on the extremely introverted intimate sounding Vespertine [One Little Indian TPLP101] as well as the following LP Medúlla [One Little Indian TPLP358] in 2004, exploring almost exclusively vocal patterns and effects. Never one to dish out the same 'winning recipe', 2007 took a turn to a more overt and political album with the release of Volta [One Little Indian tplp460h] pairing her with famed hip hop producer Timbaland along with Mark Bell and Danja; bringing a heavy tribal influence to the fore. Lastly, 2011 saw the release of Biophilia [One Little Indian tplp1016] co-produced by the British dubstep duo 16bit.

Which brings us to the project under review: Biophilia Remixes - an 8 part series of 45rpm 12-inch singles, thus 16 tracks in total, taken from the original album but remixed by various DJ-artists. These highly altered versions fall into the 'artistic' type of remix not to be confused with 'classic' extended remixes. For a better understanding of the origin of the remix along with its more artistic subgenre, I recommend my Radiohead TKOLRMX review as a primer. In fact when searching for parallels, Radiohead readily comes to mind within the context of building a successfully creative style embracing electronica influences and moving towards greater experimentation. Coincidentally making their debut in 1993, the band also counts eight albums under their belt at nearly the same release dates. As if that were not enough, their last original album also served as a catalyst for a series of 12-inch single remixes - later compiled on a double CD. Björk is by far the most famous musical artist stemming from Iceland followed by the ambiant trio Sigur Rós. While the Nordic country is shy on quantity, it does try to make up in quality and originality.

For the time being I will limit my evaluation to the first five parts, parts six to eight having not graced my collection as of writing. Admittedly this makes the remix project review somewhat incomplete but I believe that covering past the halfway mark will go a long way in providing the reader the necessary insight into what one might expect upon listening. Take note that these are part of the regular series; there is also a 500 vinyl limited deluxe edition featuring micro textured mineral papers and embossed foil lettering.


Starting with the artwork: although each 12-inch single has its own particular front and back cover, there is nonetheless a definite underlying theme unifying the series tastefully created by m/m, the Parisian visual artists design duo Michael Amzalag & Mathias Augustyniak. Different soft earth tones serve as background for the centered track titles presented in a highly distinctive stylised black font (the deluxe version shares the same design but with bolder background hues). These covers are slightly smaller than conventional album jackets making vinyl insertion and extraction a tad frustrating, more so if you add an 'audiophile approved' inner sleeve for added protection since there are none initially included. The latter is quite common in British and european 12-inch singles but given that these are part of a series, I am surprised they chose to skimp on this detail. Each record sports a minimalist white label on side A while the flip side wears the complementary black. The U.K. pressing appears rigid and straight, weighing at most 150 grams. All five records showed the vinyl to be visually disappointing, exhibiting poor greyish lackluster sides that I find totally unacceptable for a brand new copy. Of course I could have cleaned it on my old Nitty Gritty but I should not have to and nor should you when buying a first hand copy as opposed to a second hand one; so my evaluation is based pre-washed as is. Try as I might, I was not able to determine the exact origin of the pressing plant.


On Part One, Two and Four, "MANDY PARNELL BLACK SALOON STUDIOS" is inscribed on either side A or B in the dead wax. Part Three and Five bear no such inscriptions but I doubt that they would use a different cutting engineer within the same project. Mandy Parnell previously worked as a mastering and cutting engineer for The Exchange followed by a stint at Electric Mastering before opening up Black Saloon Studios in London. Biophilia, the album, was mastered and cut by Parnell; because the original master was geared towards the apps release for iPad it emphasized the sub-bass and top end but the upper bass and lower mids were lacking in balance. This prompted Björk to reject the first master, saying she was not happy with her vinyl test pressing and asking Parnell if she could re-cut it; unhappy as well with the album, could she remaster the latter. Even further at Björk's inclining request, she boarded a plane to Iceland with her mobile mastering rig and was taken aback when one of Björk's assistant engineer, Curver Thoroddsen - who's also worked with Sigur Rós - handed her the full sessions mix instead of the usual 2-track stereo master that most mastering engineers work with. After extensive hours consulting and listening with Björk on what she wanted to convey both emotionally and sonically through the recording, they settled on a new master - quite different from the original version - that would serve the basis for the multiple formats; these slightly tweaked accordingly.

This is the new dilemma or challenge - depending if you are an optimist rather than a pessimist - facing the artist, mastering engineer and music industry as a whole. Where in the past the latter trio merely had to concentrate on getting the LP, single and CD 'right', nowadays add the download hi-rez and MP3 compressed files, Apple apps and limited edition box sets to the aforementioned 'oldies'. Talk about spreading your resources too thin, is it no wonder that it is getting harder and harder finding decent sounding productions regardless of format. In an interview she gave to SOS, Parnell had this to say: "What happens a lot of the time is that there’s someone in a back room who does the conversions after it leaves the mastering suite, and every platform wants a different codec, be it iTunes, Amazon or CD Baby. The record companies are being charged a nominal fee for this transfer by companies who are not employing trained audio engineers. There is no quality control for what the different codecs are doing to the audio; the record companies would not pay our fees as mastering engineers to check this, unfortunately...once it leaves the mastering studio as files, DDP or CD, we do not know how it is transferred. We, as mastering engineers around the world, have to take back control of the final QC." I could not agree more, which does not make my job any easier when trying to sort out 'who's to blame' for such sonic fiascos.


Part One is handled by Tim Eliot better known as Current Value. On side A, the German drum & bass experimentalist focuses on "Crystalline". What first strikes you is the very loud cutting level that engineer Parnell chose, due in great part by the highly compressed maxed out mix source. This produces a 'crunchy' and dense mix with dirty veiled highs. Being very repetitive, it makes for a boring and quite disappointing starter; not surprisingly heavy ear-fatigue is the outcome.

Flipping sides, things do not get much better with "Solstice". Cut loud but a sliver lower, the high ratio of compression/limiting robs the punch out of the syncopated electro kick squashing it to death. More detail in the highs; gone is the previous veil but on the other hand it is more aggressive this time. Again repetitive to the bone; would it not be for the 'nasty' sounding synth, my stylus might not have reach the dead wax. Its effect would be better served if the 'apocalyptic riff' would share time with a counter riff of some sort. So after only 2 tracks, my ears yearn for a break of dreaded loudness assault and creative numbness.


Part Two is seised by the grips of death. The Californian band Dead Grips attacks side A with "Sacrifice". Cut at a normal level, it is still compressed but not as fatiguing. Like the vinyl surface, the treble is also dirty and lacking air. Slow percussive bass sounds are fairly good. Soundstage is on the narrow side. Did I mention repetitive? I know, I am repeating myself.

At last "Thunderbolt" strikes like cool rain after a long hot drought. This remix is the first to stand out a bit from the prevailing monotony so far. Björk's vocals are continuously multiplying like an accelerated time-lapse flower blooming, underpinned by dense multi-part 'meaty' synth parts. Good deep lows overlayed at certain times by edgy panned highs. While not superb, sound approaches excellent.


Part Three side A has Spanish musician-producer Pablo Díaz-Reixa aka El Guincho remixing "Cosmogony". Tempo changes gear, now more falling into a faster tech house vein. Interesting crescendo-like intro. Sparse vocal effects are restricted to a recurring loop, riding on the four on the floor throughout the track. Less compressed and cleaner sounding. Belonging more in the hypnotic rave camp than the dark experimental one. Larger and deeper soundstage makes for a welcome surprise. Nice articulated low frequencies. Björk's 'fingerprints' or rather 'voiceprints' are less felt on this track. On par with the previous remix. Are things looking up after all? I am afraid that is not the case entirely. Though the musical aspect would tend to concur, the sonic aspect does not follow.

Side B changes guest remixers with Scotish musician-DJ-producer Ross Birchard aka Hudson Mohawke, Canadian Merrill Beth Nisker aka Peaches and Guacamol joining forces to contaminate us with "Virus". The top end definitely more detailed with a tonal balance a bit ascending and corresponding lack of weight at the bottom. Crunchy to the point of near-saturation French horn (synth perhaps) lending a dramatic 1980s Blade Runner ambiance. This slow tempo track frequently flirts with distortion and heavy saturation on the digital delays, synths and vocal effects. Lots of annoying sibilance on vocals which is a recurring problem on many of her albums. The smearing degree on this remix seems exacerbated by the high compression and cutting level. This vinyl side displayed many surface tics and pops. Cheap pressing compound plus static charge due to tight insertion-extraction are the likely culprits.


Part Four sees the return of Current Value, this time presenting their version of "Thunderbolt" on side A. Top end detail is better rendered even though the mix is dense and compressed with a very 'crunchy' pronounced lower treble emphasis providing the presence region to cut through the busy background. Good low sweeping buzz tones; too bad the kick is 'strangled' due to the excessive compression/limiting. Heavy sibilance plus tics towards the coda emerge.

"Hollow" at 7:20 is the second longest remix of the series. At long last, we are allowed some impressive 'hammering' tight kick, these triggering lower fundamental bass tones counterbalanced by good light electronified hi-hat. Wider soundstage; some overall compression but sufficiently kept at bay not to squash the punch. Best remix up to this point. That said, ears do feel a bit full, always a precursor to listener fatigue.


Part Five side A spotlights British DJ - Ninja artist - Dylan Richards aka Zilla aka King Cannibal who had initially worked on Björk's Biophilia LP now remixing "Thunderbolt". Lasting just over 8 minutes, this is the longest remix of the series and contrary to the previous tracks which left ample dead wax between label and modulated groove, here there is nearly no dead wax to speak of; in fact when the coda hits its 'last breath', the stylus has basically reached the label rim. This theoretically favors the low frequency amplitude and reach at the expense of a distortion-free top end. I am happy to report that the former did benefit from large displacement cutting while the latter did not seem penalized one bit, so much for theory. The intro features her vocals arranged in choir-type layering over an organ-like grounding. This transitions into a four on the floor mid tempo electro disco steady meter coaxing you to tap your feet to the beat. The 'reverse cymbal swish', ambiance and key chords prevent the remix from veering into a pure dance track while at the same time lending it an edgy character. The milder compression is well rewarded by excellent kick texture and tonal balance comprising deep reaching lows and sizzling top end synth runs. Without doubt this is the best remix of the lot up to now, earning a solid 9 out of 10. Cut at a much lower level, you will have to compensate by turning up the volume on this side vs the other louder compressed releases.

Side B casts German sound artist experimenter Carsten Nicolai aka Aleph-1 (Pass not included) aka Alva Noto Remodel. "Dark Matter" is the chosen track. Dead wax and groove cutting back to a normal moderate lenght and level respectively. Long intro melding strange vocal sounds without words that I could decipher. Excellent top end, rhythmic sonic details counterbalanced by great lows and subtle rumbling ambiance cues. Later on, a syncopated punchy kick beat pattern crescendoes, taking on added complexity through rhythmic glitches, clicks and basic electronic noise structures; surprisingly without recourse to sequencers. Fuse all those elements together and you get one heck of a winner. Close to a perfect 10 in many respects; making this single a no-brainer recommendation.

Summing up, Björk's Biophilia Remixes project, turns out to be a mix bag in sound and substance. True I have not had the opportunity to listen to the remaining three singles of which Part Six, could be a worthy contender. Wherein DJ-composer-producer Matthew Herbert leaves his stamp on no fewer than three tracks: "Mutual Core", "Sacrifice" and "Virus". Unfortunately the one constant in the series I got to sample, was the lackluster vinyl and 'roller coaster' sound quality. So for the time being, if you limit yourself to only one single in the series, your best bet is Part Five both for remix appreciation and sonic bliss. As for a second purchase, I would say its a toss-up between Part Four and Part Three on both fronts or take a small leap of faith on Part Six. You can forget Part One altogether.
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