Underworld – Thing In A Book [with a strange fan video]

Languishing for two decades in the rare original Dark & Long single, Underworld’s Thing In A Book is finally seeing the light of modern day this month. Courtesy of the 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe edition of legendary dance album, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, the wider world can appreciate what has been one of my favorite hidden gems for years now. It’s a 20 minute minimal techno monster, an otherworldly take on Dark &Long that jettisons our solar system, hitting light speed on the way to stars beyond.

There’s a methodical build to the spare insistent percussion, slowly accumulating layers of analog synth and interstellar static. Bits of guitar and monosyllabic snippets whisper by. The sound floats closer to Philip Glass and the pop ambient of Kompakt than Underworld ever dared before or after. I’m warmly reminded of legendary Detroit techno project Deepchord presents Echospace, an act assembled over a decade past this song. My headphones access a maglev train, pinging sonar over glowing dot-matrix mountainsides. My brain locks directly into its groove on a primal level. Simply put: it’s a perfect long-form chillout techno piece.

This is the best youtube version of the song. We’ve got a high quality stream of the music itself combined with a strangely hypnotic fan created video. The footage moves like a weirdly banal camcorder take on the time lapse photography of Godfrey Reggio, the subway tracking, sidewalk rushing connective tissue of Koyaanisqatsi. Watch it, or leave it in the background and enjoy the song purely on its own terms. Despite its minimalist nature, the song still packs a number of Underworld’s more populist traits. More than anything, this one feels as refined as a Swiss watch, cranking up the tension through its lengthy run. There’s a certain appeal to something so unabashedly epic, yet restrained and introverted, that tears into my heart. If you haven’t heard this, you may be surprised.

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The band seen in 1994 (supposedly).

I should mention the 20th anniversary reissue of Dubnobasswithmyheadman. This is a rare example of an album from the burgeoning CD era being remastered with care and delicacy. Subtle details I’d never noticed in my nearly two decades of listening were revealed. The drums are punchier, basslines snappier. Yet the loudness war remains in distant lands, allowing the full dynamic range to stand intact. The two disc edition contains some essential early singles, but the five disc edition (seriously) holds nearly everything produced in that era, including Thing In A Book. If you don’t have the money or patience for that massive slab of music, the whole set is streaming free on Spotify.

Just give it a listen. I’ll be looping this for a while at work tomorrow.

Alice Coltrane – Divine Songs

This is a glowing gem known only to those who have burrowed deep enough into the inimitable catalog of jazz legend Alice Coltrane.

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“Divine music is the sound of true life, wisdom, and bliss.  This music transcends geographical boundaries, language barriers, age factors; and whether educated or uneducated, it reaches deep into the heart and soul, sacred and holy…” – Alice Coltrane

Released in 1987 on cassette only, Divine Songs is the purest expression of the spiritual drone jazz sound that Alice had been perfecting ever since establishing the Shanti Anantam Ashram in the decade prior.

Soaring into ethereal space, leaving only the faintest jazz roots visible, the sound here is birthed in minimalist Indian organ modes. The atmosphere cracks open with harp and strings, shining brightly around her transcendent voice. It might not be for the casual fan, but if you’re tuned in to the celestial vibe Alice developed in the years after her husband, John Coltrane, died, you’ll settle in perfectly here.

A bonus for fans of Flying Lotus, and his album Cosmogramma in particular: keep your ears open for fleeting moments where he sampled his great aunt directly. With such a heavy influence she’s had on his music, the cameos feel especially poignant.

Flying Lotus – Coronus, The Terminator

Just now, Flying Lotus dropped a second preview track for next month’s long anticipated album, You’re Dead! The song is titled Coronus, The Terminator, and you can listen right here:

After first single, Never Catch Me (featuring Kendrick Lamar) burst out of his studio, Flying Lotus’ longtime fans were both reassured of his musical wizardry and shaken by the first appearance of a full-on rap verse in his music. I’m smitten with the sound, a sort of hyperactive take on late 70′s psychedelic jazz marching to a stuttered hip-hop beat. Lamar’s vocals were suitably drenched in the alien atmosphere, the requisite Thundercat bass fireworks popped just right, and the ending shot off into that fuzzy space where Cosmogramma left off.

This time, a low slung beat eases us into a pool of languid falsetto funk vocals, splashing in phosphorescence. Thundercat’s presence is far more subtle here, dancing lightly around the wood-clap percussion. A traditionally “Flylo” shuffle beat materializes, driving an ascension toward the same astral plane he occupied on Mmhmm nearly 4 years ago. It’s a hermetic, relaxed little slice of space age spiritualism that works as a perfect foil to the frantic Never Catch Me.

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This preview pair might give us a nice hint toward the full breadth and scope of You’re Dead! but I’m prepared for bigger surprises, come October 7. Check out the Flying Lotus – You’re Dead! page at Warp.net and make sure to watch the dizzying video preview below, featuring visuals from one of my current favorite Japanese artists, Shintaro Kago. Warning: sorta NSFW. (Second warning: may induce seizures)

You watched it right? This is the beginning of an autumn full of brilliant music.

First Thoughts on Aphex Twin’s Syro

On Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at some point after 7pm, Aphex Twin‘s first album in 13 years leaked. Syro is playing right now, and I have a grin as big as the one below.

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Just as I start typing well past the halfway point of this album, a sudden dynamic bloom splits CIRCLONT14 wide open. Wordless female vocals seem to come from below and around me, before erupting a cyberpunk break straight from future-Detroit. This is one of many moments so far to truly surprise me and dilate my eyes, and it’s the biggest so far.

Somehow time seems to be stretching forever. The songs appear to go beyond their track lengths. This is a wildly unnatural sensation. Fun times usually pass in a flash. I’m definitely having fun.

A boogie funk line just hijacked the proceedings. I’m now unable to think of what came before. Wait, no. Let’s jump back to the beginning.

It begins with minipops 67. We know how grand this is, how warm and sensuous it is, referencing the first Aphex Twin album and his boldest pop moment at once. Next..

Now I’m hearing a synth ghost chorus, high speed jazzy drum programming, and what can only be described at this moment as an equatorial oscillation. Maybe that should be a question? It sounds like nonsense. I’m not going for anything profound right now. This isn’t going to end that thoughtfully. I just wanted to lay my excitement down in words, as it happens. Gonzo style. Of course, I’m safe, alone, and in my apartment, but all the same: this is me experiencing an album I never knew I wanted so badly for so many years.

As the final track, aisatsana (Anastasia in reverse, incidentally) winds down in Gymnopédie-like ecstacy, I’m reminded of nothing so gentle and haunting as Virginia Astley‘s 1983 song A Summer Long Since Passed. I’d rather not spoil anything, so just listen to this song if you want a metaphorical preview of Syro’s ending.

I feel like maybe the title is appropriate, somehow.


I’m starting it over. Track two now, and I’m realizing how tactile this thing feels. I may get the cybernetic dream sequence feeling from Selected Ambient Works 85-92, but it’s far more alive. I can’t wait for the the arrival of my 3LP next Monday.

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The leak is out there. I won’t share links because anyone interested enough can find them. Besides: buy this. Buy it now. I did before hearing even the first single, and now I’m cemented in my belief that it was a Good Choice. If you’re a fan of the man at all, this is a sure shot. Check the Warp page for links to purchase.

Oneohtrix Point Never + Philip K. Dick

Today I’m taking shelter in my apartment while a certain Christian music festival rears its ugly head across the street. Fanny-packed crowds flood the streets below while devotional rock blasts through the windows. I shut the shades and find my Rifts box set, selecting the third and possibly gentlest Oneohtrix Point Never album, Russian Mind. Once the turntable is spinning, I nudge the volume a few times until I hear nothing but the gorgeous introductory drone and feel myself wash away. I’m reading VALIS, the final work by science fiction visionary and personal favorite, Philip K. Dick. It’s dense, wild, bursting with ideas in every direction at once. It’s also painfully close to my inner workings at times – a strange proposition when the book is about insanity, living information, and puzzling out the coded machinations of the universe.

Hit play now, so you can follow along:

I slide back into the book I’ve nearly completed. The wandering cadence of this story feels like the most familiar dream. When a sudden gap allows the fist pumping dogma to pierce my room from outdoors, I jump to get side B rolling as quickly as possible. The title track begins, and my eyes fall on this passage:

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To my surprise I realized that I had stopped shaking.

It was as if I had been shaking all my life, from a chronic undercurrent of fear. Shaking, running, getting into trouble, losing the people I loved. Like a cartoon character instead of a person, I realized. A corny animation from the early Thirties. In back of all I had ever done the fear had forced me on. Now the fear had died, soothed away by the news I had heard. The news, I realized suddenly, that I had waited from the beginning to hear; created, in a sense, to be present when the news came, and for no other reason.

I could forget the dead girl. The universe itself, on its macro-cosmic level, could now cease to grieve. The wound had healed.
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Not many people know me that well, but those who do will know why this hits me so hard. Especially when paired with what I was hearing.

Coming in after a song called “Grief and Repetition,” Russian Mind works a swift attack. Rejecting the overlapping, clipped dull tones of its predecessor, the song bursts forth in a warm arpeggio, taking flight above grey clouds on a stormy day, pulling right on into space. It’s simple, direct, working on a primal level; there’s nothing subliminal about the way it sets progressive thought blooming. It is, in a sense, a kernel of understanding my love for sci-fi evoking synth music. I grew up when science fiction was, if not optimistic, always framed with boundless possibility. There was fear, but not of the unknown. The fear was about our past, our old, dumb ideas still haunting us. The unknown was the future, and whatever it held was not going to hold us back. This music opens a back door, plugging me into that childhood feeling of endless curiosity and hope for what was yet to come.

I feel confident hazarding a guess that Dan Lopatin (the artist’s real name; coincidentally the son of immigrants from the former Soviet Union) was raised on similar fiction with a similar affection for the galaxy of sounds made possible via synthesizer. The more I read on, while the album neared its conclusion, the more apparent it became to me: this notion that VALIS, and the philosophy of Philip K. Dick in general, might be the author’s ultimate work. Not only that, but it may be one of the few books I’ve read that stabs toward the fundamental abyss I find myself gawking at so often. Not only that, but, given the book’s themes and plot (I won’t spoil anything), Lopatin’s work likely acknowledges both Dick and this novel in particular.

I’ll end with this tidbit, gleaned from the Wikipedia article on the name of the final track on this album:

Immanence refers to philosophical and metaphysical theories of divine presence in which the divine is seen to be manifested in or encompassing the material world.

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Please, read some of Dick’s work. It’s worth all of our time.

Special thanks to my friend, collected unkept, for lending me VALIS.

Carl Craig – At Les

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here on Optimistic Underground, and as with every prior hiatus I now feel the need to hammer out some mea culpa before jumping into the music. Today I’m skipping that nonsense. Here’s one of the greatest pieces of electronic dance music I’ve ever heard, a landmark from almost two decades ago that I only discovered this year.

Since “better late than never” is mostly true, I’m sharing this new found treasure with everyone. This is god-tier techno, from a Detroit legend you’ve probably heard of. Carl Craig is considered one of the great masters of techno, for reasons that become obvious within minutes of getting familiar. His 1997 masterpiece solo album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art was an instant all-time top 10 favorite the moment I heard it this past winter. The album peaks at the moment At Les begins pouring from its beating heart.

With an insistent, warm muted synth beat frittering on the wind, martial percussion building from a whisper, and a gathering storm of wordless vocal pads, this tune rolls imperceptibly deep at first. It gives me dystopian fantasy chills, some combination of black neon dance floor and crystal space cavern conjured in my head. The driving rhythm belies an ambient drift to the dynamics; by song’s end you’ve gone through the clouds and back, but At Les disappears without so much as an echo of where it went.

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The album itself, pictured above, is a true blue masterwork, and one of the best albums of the 1990′s  as far as I’m concerned. Several other tracks, including Red Lights and Televised Green Smoke, are in the same realm as this song, if not quite as iconic. Even if you’re a fan of Craig’s, you may have missed this opportunity (something about his myriad personas and hundreds of remix releases) and deserve to be as wowed as I am.

Destroyer – The Laziest River

When I purchased the 2lp edition of Destroyer‘s 2011 pop masterpiece Kaputt, I had no idea that the bonus track promised on side C would slowly become the languid circulatory system of the entire album.  It swims in an embryonic well from which the other tracks drink, all held breath and deep plunge.  It’s patient and fragile, and just may comprise twenty of my favorite minutes.

If you have only heard the standard tracklisting, press play now.  It’s rare when something labelled “bonus” actually elevates the experience of listening to a great album.  The Laziest River feels absolutely essential at this point, and while I sympathize with the probable intention of encouraging vinyl purchases, it seems unfair to leave everyone else with an unfinished story.  So buy it if you can, but this song can be downloaded and amended to your playlist for a quick fix.