Album Review: Kanye West – ye

by Dustin

kanye-west-ye-album-credits

4/10

A lot of things can and have been said about Kanye West. Many a think piece had found itself picking apart the socially reprehensible drivel to fall out of his mouth after he took the media by storm this year in a whirlwind of foolishness. Though the social impact of his ignorance is certainly an interesting topic, it has seemingly worked its way into every single review on the planet. Clicking on any discussion about his recently released ye album, and one is likely to spend more time reading political views than anything related to the music. While Kanye certainly has made himself an impossible character to wish to support, ye is for all intents and purposes a major release from one of hip-hop’s most prominent figures. For that reason alone, the music deserves to be analyzed as actual music, and not the ramblings of everyone’s favorite pariah.

With that out of the way, let’s reflect on Mr. West’s eighth solo effort.

It’s not often that the production on an album dwarfs the presence of the emcee, but this was absolutely the case with ye. Luckily for himself, Kanye can lay claim to the instrumentation on this record as well. For years, Kanye West fans have been clamouring for the controversial figure to go back to his roots of chopping samples and banging out killer instrumentation. Not long prior to the release of ye, he offered up some promising (and genuinely very good) instrumentals on Pusha T’s DAYTONA. Moving onto this project, he surprisingly kept that momentum going. The beats were good. Nothing stood out in the same way that “Santeria” did on DAYTONA, but it was some of the best production work Kanye has rapped on since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There was a nice blend between his signature soulful sample style from back in the day, and his more modern wavy, synthetic, bass heavy sound. It was all quite pleasing to the ear, and set the album up for what should have been an easy home-run if he could keep up on the mic; however, that didn’t really happen.

In other words, ye was an album that would have been better served to be a beat tape. Kanye proved to be his own worst enemy, as his backdrop outshone the lackluster spotlight.

Being that he has never been the most talented writer in the world, Kanye has relied pretty heavily on his charisma and personality behind the mic. Even on his weaker projects he came across as an eccentric, and there was something infectious about it. His vocal performances on ye were odd, as they lacked any semblance of this spark. Yeezy seemed disinterested and it was difficult to engage the music when he carried himself as entirely uninvested. It should be mentioned that there clearly was an attempt on Kanye’s behalf to come across as a more introspective and thoughtful writer; however, this manifested itself in tracks such as “I Thought About Killing You” and “Wouldn’t Leave,” which were extremely groan inducing and difficult to sit through. In addition to that, the adventures into braggadocio did not carry any sort of weight, as his lack of charisma couldn’t lift the mediocre writing. Regardless of the topic, most songs on here felt like gutless and redundant rehashes of things that he’s already done a hundred times in the past.

Actually, imagine the rapping on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Now imagine that rapping with every last drop of energy sucked out of it, leaving only the bare bones of its design. That is essentially how Kanye came across on ye. Not horrendous, just unbearably dull.

Side note, the mixing was bad. Really bad. Mike Dean has been a bit of a disaster in the technical department for a long time, and ye is no exception. Everything was muddied out, resulting in the album sounding amateurish and unfinished. For a major release, the audio quality was downright shameful.

Acknowledging Kanye’s tumultuous negative media presence wasn’t really required to walk away from ye feeling entirely empty. Though many reviewers rating it poorly have chosen to focus mostly on his personal volatility, the album from a musical standpoint offered very little to be excited about. It was encouraging to hear him knocking out enjoyable instrumentals again, but at the same time his rapping showed little improvement from the nosedive it took on Yeezus five years ago. While one would have hoped that dialing back to a 20 minute run time could have helped Kanye release a more focused product, ye felt just as rushed as The Life of Pablo in most respects. Unfortunately, it was also a lot less interesting. The manic energy of his last two projects was not to be found; instead, the final product had little identity, and felt like nothing more than a placid celebration of boredom by an artist who left his prime long ago.

Advertisements

Album Review: Prof – Pookie Baby

by Dustin

pookiebaby

3.75/10

A few years ago, Rhymesayers associated themselves with an artist well outside of their usual dynamic. As an addition to their roster he stuck out like a sore thumb, yet his chaotic energy charmed the fanbase quickly. This artist was Prof. The other side of the coin to Rhymesayers Entertainment’s introspective conscious rap signature. He came in boasting an arrogantly brazen offering of hyperactive shenanigans within his music. He was a debauchery driven scumbag but possessed a degree of self-awareness that broke through on moments of emotional reflection. His label debut, Liability, came in 2015 and offered an excellent helping of his range. It was a mess, but so genuinely fun that it was impossible not to love. It felt like a jumping off point into something bigger for Prof. He took time away from the studio to tour but recently returned with his new album. Pookie Baby, the record which would push the sound and success of Liability forward and prove that Prof was a true powerhouse on the label.

Except, it didn’t happen that way. Not even close.

Pookie Baby missed the mark in most ways, but the biggest element of failure was Prof’s writing. His wild, party addict, white boy shtick, which normally seems natural, came across as eye-rollingly forced. The lyrics began to be more of a nuisance than a pleasure to sit through by the thirtieth time he reminded anyone listening of how often he has sex. It was funny at first, particularly on “Send Nudes,” but at a point, Prof started to sound like a meme of himself. A broken record with no range. It was hard to listen without feeling like he had phoned the writing portion for the vast majority of the release. The wit and tongue in cheek braggadocio of past releases were hard to see. Instead, there was an appeal to the lowest common denominator with empty, repetitive lyrics. It was a letdown. Prof is capable of a lot more than he showed on Pookie Baby, but the steps backwards were too blatant to be pushed aside. Given the length of time between Liability and now, it’s reasonable to say that more could have been expected.

There’s also the aspect of vocal delivery. Prof has never been a technically talented singer, but in small doses, his voice can be a lot of fun and add a unique flair of versatility that many lack. Small doses being the key. In the case of Pookie Baby, though, the singing was far too frequent and hit a point of being completely abrasive. One or two songs featuring his trademark warbling would have been welcomed with open arms; however, when it feels like half the album is an artist overusing an already spotty singing voice to avoid having to write lyrics with more depth, there is a problem. Pookie Baby had this problem. When he opted to rap, Prof’s delivery did compensate for some of the weaker writing to a degree. It still wasn’t his best work by any means, but it was passable enough for songs like “Time Bomb” and “Action” to sound genuinely engaging. Sadly, these moments were very much the minority. Prof misused his vocal tools to the point that it hurt the record severely. It’s a shame because there were a few glimpses of that bombastic skill on the album. He just decided, for whatever reason, to put a minuscule amount of it on display.

In addition to Prof delivering vocals well below his capabilities on Pookie Baby, he received little help from the instrumentals. It was more cohesive than Liability musically but lacked the eclectic charm and character of that album’s production. It felt like a binary. Either he was rapping on top of a bouncy, upbeat trap flavored beat, or he was crooning on top of something more wavy and slow. While none of the instrumentals were inherently bad, they were generic and grew dull quickly. Prof normally has enough energy to carry weaker beats, but his complacency on Pookie Baby enabled them to stand out as mediocre. Tracks were screaming for more intricacy to help carry his performance, and it just was not there. It was another unfortunate reflection of the regression Prof displayed as an artist. His production choices were that of an individual who misunderstood his strengths and appeal, resulting in a bitterly inferior product from top to bottom.

In spite of Pookie Baby’s quality issues, it doesn’t seem fair to count Prof out entirely. As much as this was a rather significant misstep, it wasn’t bad due to deteriorated ability. It felt more like he was lost musically, and leaned heavily on his crutches to be able to flesh out an album. This has happened to many an artist over the years, and a future return to form is more than possible. Regardless this is a review, and the reality is that Pookie Baby offered little of value or interest. A couple of songs were quite amusing and might be worth spinning again, but the overall product was underwhelming at best. It just didn’t click. He’s worth keeping an eye on going forward as there’s plenty of untapped potential, but this is a project better to be left forgotten.

Album Review: Black Milk – FEVER

by Dustin

FEVER

9/10

Detroit. One of the meccas of hip-hop. For years the city has churned out phenomenal talent like flowers growing through the cracks of the extremely rough social climate. Since the turn of the millennium, Black Milk has been honing himself as one of Motor City’s finest artists. Working with prominent local names such as Slum Village, Danny Brown, Guilty Simpson, and Royce da 5’9”, he became known as a production wizard before moving into solo rap releases in 2005. His career has been one marked by superhuman craftsmanship, particularly following the release of Tronic in 2008. Black Milk has been an artist to never settle, striving to push his style to new places with each new drop. Just shy of four years since his last rap release, Black Milk stepped out of the shadows with a new offering of tracks; one that may only have been his most bold step forward in the name of musical progression.

FEVER was a sonic departure for Black Milk, at least regarding his rap releases. While it moved away from the alternative street-hop sound, he had crafted on No Poison No Paradise, and If There’s a Hell Below, it built upon the distinctive flavor of the Nat Turner collaborative effort, The Rebellion Sessions. This will likely be a sticking point for some, and admittedly it did make for a confusing initial listen; however, once that shock wore off, the album felt incredibly well put together. It doesn’t take a hip-hop aficionado to recognize that Black Milk has been a production powerhouse for many years, but he still managed to find a point of ascension for FEVER. The instrumentals on this album were fantastic. Through the process of chopping tracks recorded by his actual band, Black Milk gave the beats a sense dynamic liveliness that would otherwise be difficult to accomplish using samples. It created an intimate environment, much like watching a jazz-rap show at a small venue. Additionally, he didn’t entirely abandon the classic boom-bap undertones that have become a signature of the Michigan region. The record maintained a needed sense of familiarity. There was a wonderful balance between genres that often gets lost on artists when they move into new territory. While the jazz and funk elements were certainly prominent, FEVER remained hip-hop at its core.

The production oddities didn’t end there, however, as the vocals on this release were handled uniquely. Black Milk felt to be a little further back in the mix, doing away with the stark contrast between emcee and instrumental. This had some interesting consequences. First and foremost, it gave the album a flawless aspect of cohesion. The way Black Milk allowed himself to be enveloped in the beat made it sound as if he was more at home than ever before. There were no moments that felt as if the beat selection was questionable, a true hat tip toward the attention to finer detail. Secondly, it created an environment in which it became possible to end up fully lost in a track as the listener. There was an ethereal beauty to each song, with the individual pieces joining forces to create a rich final sound. While this may have made it hard to firmly hang onto Black Milk’s lyrics at first, with subsequent listens it became a true marvel to appreciate.

Making it all the more worth taking time was the fact that Black Milk’s performance as an emcee remained solid as ever. There’s something to be said about knowing when to keep it simple, and he has proven time and time again to be a master of that art. While admittedly more ambitious on FEVER than some of his past work, Black Milk’s flows never attempt to overwhelm. They were tight and complementary to the chilled out production. At the lyrical level, he opted to focus on his strengths: observant bars and social storytelling. Verses were packed to the brim with quick poignancy, and tracks such as “Foe Friend” highlighted his ability to craft interesting stories out of the day-to-day. What FEVER lacked in bombastic vocals was made up for in spades with unmatched consistency. There isn’t much else that can be said. Black Milk was simply extremely sharp for the entire duration of the project, and that’s an underrated quality for an album to possess.

Unfortunately, FEVER was the sort of album that will evade a good handful of listeners. It felt distinctly removed from the path Black Milk was on, and if fans don’t approach it with an open mind, it likely won’t land with them as well as it could. This is “unfortunate” because beyond that surprise it was truly a pleasure to experience. Spinning it with expectations checked at the door made it evident that this is a special record. A potential candidate for album of the year, assembled by one of hip-hop’s most artistically attentive minds. Black Milk once again found a way to push the envelope, a remarkable feat for an individual with an already fantastic track record of releases. Bravo.

Celebrating the Growing Importance of Physical Media

by Dustin

cassette2

To be completely honest, the title to this article might sound odd to most. How can physical media possibly be more important than ever when digital has steamrolled the industry? At the surface level, it is dead. Retailers are pulling the last of the CDs off the shelves, marking the end of a decades-long music media evolutionary process. Yet, many have never spent more money on CDs, vinyl, and cassettes than they do now. I am extremely bad. If I don’t budget a monthly allowance to be spent on music I suddenly find myself in a position where groceries are particularly troublesome. Financial tomfoolery aside, I’ve come to realize that moving back toward physical releases has changed my relationship with music entirely. With today being Record Store Day my friends and I wanted to take a minute to share our passion for this fading corner of the music scene, and hopefully shed some light on why we consider physical releases more important now than they have ever been.

“In a world where streaming makes music easier to consume than ever, it seems as though its value is continuously decreasing. For a long time now, I’ve been confronted with the question “why buy a song when I can download it for free?” However, with the increasing prevalence of streaming, which poses as a way to “support” artists in a cheap (potentially free) way, the statement seems to just be given more validation. I’ve always felt that streaming is dissatisfying in many ways; there’s no connection between fan and artist. Physical albums allow that connection to exist. You have something tangible to hold, you have to store and maintain them, you get to surround yourself with what you love. They allow the music to keep its value in a market where it’s more dispensable than ever.”
@RajinBuu

“Buying records means reading liner notes. It means learning about the friends and family involved with the project and glimpsing into their world. It also meant (like in the case of Outkast) learning just exactly what they were saying in the days before OHHLA or Genius.”
@deaconlf

“As both an artist and a music lover I appreciate something tangible and it warmed my heart as an artist to know that so many fans wanted to buy a physical copy of our debut project, my mom bought one my dad bought one it was something that they can look at and say “wow my kid did this” and fans can look at and say “yeah I can touch this, I can hold on to it, I can frame it” it’s like a time capsule from a forgotten period where projects stayed in your rotation for longer than a week and reviews weren’t done instantly but it’s an incredible thing to be apart of, physical music goes right along with t shirts and posters as genuine mercy.”
@MTFRyourmom of @_Nobodies

“Physical releases, no matter the format, are more important than ever now. Much of our lives exist between ones and zeros, so holding and hearing and smelling something like a record can really fill the binary void… Establish a sense of connection beyond the internet. As soon as the needle hits the groove something real happens and it is fucking beautiful. It’s almost primal at this point. I think this is true with vinyl, cassettes and CDs. All formats provide a tangible experience that sounds better than streaming, hope people stop arguing about ‘superior’ formats and just focus on making something beautiful and real. Physical releases are awesome”
@FilthyBrokeRex

For myself it’s much of the same. I crave the connection to art that only physical media can provide. From the beauty of large format cover art to the excitement of finding carefully placed easter eggs inside the album booklet, there is a tactile appeal to the senses that cannot be found anywhere else. For me, it transforms listening to an album from a simple act of consumption to an event that feels special and unique every single time. The thrill of entering a record store or thrift shop and crate digging can only be surmounted by the childlike wonder I feel when my hands finally reach something that I want. My music collection at any given moment is a treasure trove of memories, personal discovery, and adventure. It’s something I curated for myself and nobody else; a scrapbook of self-assuredness that carries all my convictions in taste. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for the world.

There’s also the element of showing that you care. The artists I love create music that becomes an integral part of who I am, and as such I want to support them in any way that I can. Attending concerts isn’t realistic all the time, but buying something that I can hold, show people, and proudly display is always an option. Digital media feels so incredibly disposable, and to me that undermines the effort and dedication these individuals pour into creating something for us to enjoy. Sure, I can acknowledge that 25 or 30 dollars for a vinyl record sounds expensive; however, when you start to consider the entire process behind the album’s existence, it really isn’t that much money. Support keeps people creating. At the end of the day, I’m more than willing to shell out extra if it helps my favorite musicians are able to stick around a little longer. Fraction of a penny streams don’t pay the bills for anybody who isn’t already a star, and that fact alone would be enough for me to proclaim physical media’s importance in the modern climate.

If you still carry any doubts, please take the time to visit a record store today (or at any point in the near future). If you’ve never been fortunate enough to take the time, it is a vastly different experience than endlessly perusing music on Spotify or Google Play. It’s a world that not enough people take advantage of these days, yet there’s a reason it pulls so many of us in. We could sit here for days and try to explain, but really you won’t get it until you try for yourself. Who knows, you could just end up catching the same bug that bit the rest of us from the very moment we purchased our first albums. Apologize to your wallet on my behalf, and have fun!

Happy Record Store Day.

A History of UTFO and the Roxanne Wars

by Dustin

UTFO

The 1980s were an interesting decade for hip-hop as a genre that had just begun to find its footing. The classic artists of this era are often remembered for one of two things: infectiously bouncy party music, or gritty socially rooted rap. Yet, aside from the big names – N.W.A, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, and a few others – rap from this particular point in history seems have found itself overshadowed by the behemoth that is 90s rap. Yet, if one is up to doing a little digging, there are a ton of very interesting artists to be discovered. One such group was Untouchable Force Organization, or as they were more commonly called, UTFO. An east coast rap group that brought a unique flavor to the sounds of the 80s.

UTFO formed in Brooklyn, New York in 1984 when two of Whodini’s regular break-dancers, Doctor Ice and Kangol Kid, made the decision to pursue a music career of their own. The two enlisted the talents of The Educated Rapper and Mixmaster Ice to round out a quartet. Thanks to the group’s pre-existing connections to the music industry it didn’t take them long to find a label to call home. In this case, it was Fred Munao’s Select Records that decided to take a chance with the group. The slightly more experienced R&B outfit Full Force was brought into the fold to assist the newer UTFO, tasked with overseeing the production of their debut studio album. Full Force took this job to heart, and sought the help of sampling and sound design expert Gary Pozner to assist with the instrumental portion of the record. Armed with some of the best in the industry, UTFO was primed to make a splash in hip-hop with their self-titled debut album. Which, is exactly what they did; in fact, the group probably got a bigger response than they bargained for.

Their freshman release is regarded by many hip-hop enthusiasts as a slept on classic, with its unique beats and flows for the era; however, UTFO as an album is still mainly known for setting off a massive string of diss tracks known as the Roxanne Wars. During the promotional run of the album, a track tilted “Hanging Out” was released and performed relatively terribly in terms of pure numbers. The b-side of the single, however, would go on to receive huge amounts of airplay. This song was titled “Roxanne, Roxanne,” a comical track about a hypothetical girl who had ignored the advances of the various UTFO members. Around this same time, UTFO missed a scheduled performance, much to the dismay of venue promoters Marley Marl and Mr. Magic. A 14-year old Lolita Gooden (known by her stage name Roxanne Shante) heard the men discussing the problem, and offered to write a song to fire back at UTFO. Surprisingly they took her up on this offer, and Marley Marl opted to handle the track’s production.

The fruit of their labor would be released not long afterward. It borrowed the original beat from “Roxanne, Roxanne” and was named “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Local radio stations adored the song, thrusting it into instant hit territory with continuous airplay. UTFO and Full Force saw the humor in the situation, and promptly contacted Elease Jack to perform vocals on their own answer track, “The Real Roxanne.” On this song, Elease claimed to be the actual Roxanne originally dissed by UTFO, and took jabs at all four members. This sparked Roxanne fever in the New York hip-hop scene, and artists entirely unrelated to the original incident began releasing Roxanne songs. Topics ranged from claiming to be Roxanne, claiming to know Roxanne, or in one particularly outlandish case, claiming that Roxanne was a man all along. It was such a craze that close to a hundred Roxanne songs were estimated to have seen release in the span of a few years. Though this seems highly likely to be exaggeration, there is no doubt that UTFO made their biggest splash with “Roxanne, Roxanne” and the time period around their debut album.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this was basically where UTFO’s career peaked. The Educated Rapper wasn’t on the group’s sophomore effort, Skeezer Pleezer. And the album itself didn’t garner much attention, apart from the song “Split Personality.” Their next three albums would also fail to meet expectations even though the group experimented with other sounds such as rock, swingbeat and reggae. Ultimately, the hypersexual Bag It & Bone It released in 1991 served as the endpoint for UTFO. The four men parted ways on good terms, and stayed active within the music industry in more subdue roles. They knew when it was time to call it quits, and that never impacted the lifelong respect they had for each other. A true testament to this was in 2017, when all of UTFO were reportedly by Educated Rapper’s bedside as he lost his battle to cancer.

Though they faded out of rap in an unspectacular manner, UTFO’s legacy should probably be spoken about more than it is. As ridiculous as they may have been, the Roxanne Wars were one of the first instances of beef extending beyond a one off diss and response. Their influence on modern artists was also far greater than one would expect, as evidenced by the outpouring of respect and love over the internet following The Educated Rapper’s death. UTFO helped paved the way for individuals that didn’t fit perfectly with the sound of their time. In most respects they were absolute eccentric oddballs compared to their contemporaries, but the group’s genuity left a lasting impression on the hip-hop scene. In retrospect, the present day alternative artist may not have even existed without the lane UTFO began to carve. While they may appear to have been a one hit wonder on the surface, it goes much deeper than that. Doctor Ice, Kangol Kid, The Educated Rapper, and Mixmaster Ice were four of the most important, but least spoken about individuals in the support structure of hip-hop.

Rajin Rambles: CDs Leaving Shelves

by Rajin

emptycdshelf

Recently, Best Buy announced their plans to cease the sale of CDs in their stores by this summer. While I had a couple of CDs from family before I started collecting, the first time I bought a CD for myself was in 2009, at the Best Buy closest to my house. I would say that the bulk of the CDs that I have bought were bought at that exact Best Buy, actually. I can’t say I like the chain (at all), but I would be lying if I said it didn’t play a substantial role in the painstakingly slow growth of my collection.

I understand that Best Buy needs more room for TVs and phone kiosks, so keeping floor space for CDs when sales are continuing to drop doesn’t make business sense. However, as someone who is passionate about purchasing physical media, I am saddened by this news. While lately I’ve generally shifted away from CDs towards vinyl and cassettes, the easy access to CDs at a store 5 minutes away from home is without a doubt what helped foster my interest in collecting physical media. I can’t help but feel that the removal of CDs from a store like Best Buy will stop that from happening for other people. I’ve read that Target may be planning on only selling CDs by artists and labels with whom they have special deals with, which makes it even more unfortunate.

It’s clear that album sales are no longer going to be what they were. While I absolutely do not care about album sales, I’m very concerned about lesser-known artists and how they will probably get the short end of the stick. It’s been like that since streaming became a widespread thing. However, if CDs really are going to be pulled from stores, and with streams counting for so little as far as sales, either a new algorithm needs to be set up or else artists are just going to be screwed out of money even more severely. Those that were able to manage to even get their CDs in a store in the first place likely benefited quite a bit from doing so. Taking this option to get their music out there away hurts them.

I’m also concerned with what will happen to mainstream albums. The art of making an album subjectively seems as though it’s taken a hit in recent years with the continued growth of streaming. We all remember when Drake pretended a bunch of songs he threw together and sold was a “playlist” and not a bloated and overlong album. It was pretty clear that it was meant to be background noise 22 tracks longs for the extra streaming revenue. This doesn’t seem like it’s only limited to him, either. Jhene Aiko also released a 22 track album last year, Chris Brown released a 40-track monstrosity, and the new Migos album had 24 tracks. To me, all of this points to a trend in mainstream music where acts who know that they’re going to get a lot of streams are just going to milk that out for all it’s worth, and release massive albums that maximize their numbers, and ultimately, their revenue, at the cost of the actual quality of music they’re releasing. The effort and creativity it takes to structure and sequence an album could very well get thrown out, with artists opting to release projects that could end up as a pile of songs with no direction or purpose.

I don’t want to seem like the disappearance of CD is going to spell out doom for the music industry. However, I do think it’s irresponsible to essentially gut one of the easiest and most convenient ways of buying physical music. Of course, Best Buy and whatever other chains decide to follow suit don’t care, and they have no reason to. I do want to say, though, that I’m hoping this inspires people, ranging from avid collectors to those who might just want to pick an album up here or there, to visit their local record stores. While I’ve been picking up music when I can for close to 9 years now, it took until last month for me to step foot in a record store. That isn’t a good thing. Record stores are generally small businesses that survive solely on selling music, unlike chains like Best Buy and Target. I decided, even before this news broke, that I was taking my business away from said chains and putting my money into record stores, sites like UGHH, and other independent sellers.

Which reminds me, actually. When thinking about this, I can’t help but keep in mind that vinyl and cassette purchases have been on the rise over the last few years. Cassettes are still VERY niche, though, so that may not hold as much significance, but the fact that vinyl sales continue to grow does inspire a little confidence in me that physical media is still a factor in the music industry. What’s more is that there are some independent labels and artists who have not only sold vinyl and cassettes, but have used them to thrive; a label like Daupe Media comes to mind. I have no real understanding as to why this might be the case, but perhaps as ways of buying physical media continue to disappear, people become more interested in it as a novelty, and end up becoming collectors themselves. Who knows.

I know with me, my end goal is to essentially create a library of hip hop albums in various forms of physical media, as a way to preserve the music that has helped shape me. I feel like as avenues of purchasing physical albums go away, this sort of thing only becomes more and more important. I think any self-proclaimed lover of music owes it to themselves, and the artists they say they love, to pick up an album and dedicate space to it, to immortalize it. I’ve probably made a big deal out of nothing, because people can always go to Amazon to get the music they want, but I do feel a kind of way about this. Like with everything else (and possibly more so, given the cheaper options), physical media in music seems very much to be an “out of sight, out of mind” kind of product to most people. I believe that the further we go to remove it from stores where you can see and browse through it, the less people will consider buying it to begin with. That’s not something I’m very happy about.

Album Review: Walter Gross – The Fra Mauro Highlands

by Dustin

FMH

8.5/10

On January 31st, 1971 NASA would launch the eighth manned mission to the moon, Apollo 14. The three person crew kicked off the 9 day mission from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39, before travelling to the Fra Mauro Highlands on the near side of the lunar surface. This would serve as the last of NASA’s simplistic (relatively speaking) H-Type missions to the moon, as they upgraded to the longer J-Type with Apollo 15. While this particular Apollo mission was relatively understated, its legacy lives on as a success during the booming age of space exploration. An era that had a particular vibe of wonder, and captured the imagination of individuals even outside the realm of science.

One may now be asking how this is relevant to music, and Walter Gross is the answer to that question. Though he may not have been an astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission (or even much of a space enthusiast, for that matter), his love of ambient concentrative music lead him to an interesting place of inspiration: the Voyager recordings. Finding himself endeared to the organic beauty of these pieces, he began work on his own out of this world experimentation. Quickly reaching full realization with a 23 minute (50 counting the Stray Signals Cassette Mix) long tape of atmospheric allure, The Fra Mauro Highlands. An album which would suitably see release on the 47th anniversary of Apollo 14.

Though it bares his name, The Fra Mauro Highlands was not the type of project one has come to expect from Walter Gross. It abandoned a lot of the crunchier, abrasive noise elements he’s become known for in the past, opting to try something a little more ambient instead. Once expectations were subverted however, this was a wonderful listening experience. It hit the flavor of desolate space music perfectly, and managed to feel cold while also inspiring a sense of adventure. There was a particular hint of retro-futurism to the tape, to the same vein as a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was due primarily to brilliant sound contrast constructed by Walter Gross. The entirety of The Fra Mauro Highlands had an underlying subtle ambiance of whooshing and swirling sounds that were distinctly galactic and harrowing. Atop of this there were moments of gorgeously vintage sounding synthetic instrumentation, used sparsely enough to maintain a sense of mechanical exploration through an all encompassing emptiness. It didn’t mess around with precisely divide tracks. Rather, this album was one continuous piece of music that built upon itself, evolving in a natural and off-the-cuff manner.

With all that in mind, there were aspects of The Fra Mauro Highlands carrying Walter’s signature touch. It was an immensely unsettling selection of work, with the emptiness and overall tone having created a strong sense of urgency and apprehensiveness of the unknown. With artistic anxiety being such a mainstay in his music, this familiarity was oddly comforting. It provided reassurance that this is exactly how the project was supposed to make one feel, and not an emotion to be avoided. The “Stray Signals Cassette Mix” which followed the conclusion of The Fra Mauro Highlands rewound things back a little further stylistically, while having maintained the same overall vibe. It wasn’t the star of the show by any means, but it was very good and really provided a feeling of returning home to the established fan of Walter Gross. A return after a fantastic journey.

Much like the Apollo 14 mission itself, The Fra Mauro Highlands will likely go down as one of Walter Gross’ most under-the-radar releases. While it was absolutely excellent, it appealed to a listener base even more niche than his signature barrage of noise. Which is unfortunate, because it was a stunningly beautiful, and somewhat anxious, ambient album. It wore its inspirations on its sleeve, and the ambition was undeniable. Do-it-Yourself music is about pushing limits, catching waves of inspiration, and trying things outside of the box just to see what will happen. Walter Gross did all of these things with The Fra Mauro Highlands. It embodied the spirit of the scene entirely, and should find itself respected as such.