16 August 2007

subHuman, by Recoil

So yesterday I got hold of the new Recoil album, subHuman. And pretty good it is too. It's brimming with the intense, dark atmosphere that Alan Wilder has made his own. If anything, despite the horrible prog-rock-esque artwork, this might be the least commercial thing he's released since leaving Depeche Mode. Certainly, it's the polar opposite of whatever execrable pop Depeche Mode are churning out nowadays. It’s almost as if he sucked all of the intensity out of the band when he left and honed it to perfection—impressive for an electronics wizard who only penned one—frankly awful—song for them.

Still, it's been seven years since the release of the awesome Liquid, and the first question is whether anything has changed. Yes and no. The album is arguably the most focused thing he's done, but it also lacks the diversity of its predecessor and 1997's Unsound Methods—and possibly 1992's Bloodline as well. That diversity was in some ways the strength and weakness of Recoil, and in the same way the focus of subHuman is both its strength and weakness.

Recoil pieces—I hesitate to call them songs—are usually collaborations between Wilder and a singer—directly, or sampled. Bloodline featured vocals by Moby, Toni Halliday, Douglas McCarthy, and a sampled Bukka White; Unsound Methods involved McCarthy again, Maggie Estep, Hildia Campbell and Siobhan Lynch; and Liquid enlisted the talents of Diamanda G├ílas, Nicole Blackman, Samantha Coerbell, Rosa Torras, and Sonya Madden on a single b-side, while sampling The Golden Gate Quartet. That's quite a list of names, and quite a range of styles; but Wilder deftly managed to pull everything together into a coherent sound and make everything work. Still, with such a range of vocal talents, it's inevitable that some singers stand out more than others—although Samantha Coerbell's contributions are fine pieces, they're both overshadowed entirely by Nicole Blackman's. And only on the (extended) single release of Stalker do two of the artist contribute to one piece—in that case Maggie Estep and Douglas McCarthy, creating a disturbing depiction of the pursuer and the pursued.

subHuman has only two vocalists—five of the seven pieces feature bluesman Joe Richardson, with Carla Trevaskis contributing breathy vocals (which put me in mind of Kate Bush) to the remaining two. Naturally, Richardson offers the kind of continuity which was impossible on the previous albums—he's there from start to finish, lending a bluesy growl to everything. In some ways that's the problem—it isn't difficult to form the impression that subHuman takes the sonic landscape of, say 'Electro Blues for Bukka White' from Bloodline, or 'Red River Cargo' from Unsound Methods, and turns it into an entire album. Throwing your lot in with a vocalist to such an extent can be a risk for a 'band' like Recoil: much as I feel that the last Sofa Surfers album was flawed because it stuck with a single vocalist who didn't overly impress me. And so Recoil fans will either lament the diversity of subHuman, or praise its depth, continuity and sense of development. As for anyone else, well, it's hardly likely people will pick this up by chance, and people coming from Depeche Mode will probably be in for a shock.

But depth and beauty the album does have. More than perhaps anyone else out there is currently doing, Wilder is creating musical environments. Which isn't to say that it's ambient waffle—the pieces on subHuman are dramatic and richly rhythmic, building to almost cacophonic crescendos before collapsing into moments of tranquility. And there's nothing minimalist about subHuman either, but Wilder seems to do a lot without doing much—there's a sparseness and sense of economy which permeates everything, not a beat or note too much, or too little.

When it comes down to it, if you like dark, complex and, dare I say it, intellectual electronic music, you should definitely give it a spin. I can imagine it causing a something of a split amongst existing fans, but slightly confounded expectations aside, it's an album which you should listen to repeatedly to fully absorb. If possible on headphones with the lights out. And that way, you won't be able to see the artwork, either.

And if you are going to pick it up, try and get hold of the limited edition—the bonus DVD comes with PCM stereo, 24 bit DTS 5.1, and 5.1 surround versions of the main album; as well as all five of Recoil's previous promotional videos, along with new videos for 'Shunt' and 'Electro Blues for Bukka White (2000 remix)'. Perhaps most interesting, though are the 'Reduction' remixes—every piece in a more down-tempo form, lyrics (mostly?) intact, essentially offering an alternate version of the album. I can see some people preferring the reduced version to the original—the remixes are that good. The case lists the run-time as 162 minutes, if that gives you an idea of the amount of material here. Worth every penny.

10 August 2007

Universal Music shows its true colours

So Universal Music has decided to offer DRM-free music for download. Hooray! Except they won't be doing it through iTunes, but through all its main competitors. Universal's argument is that Apple's DRM has stifled growth of the online music market, and thus they will not be offering their DRM-free music through the the leading online distributor. As John Gruber said, WTF?

It's quite simple really. Universal are painting Apple as being the big bad guy who needs to be toppled. The iTunes Music Store is the leading distributor of legal online music—and it's achieved that position because it was the first service to convince the major music labels that there really was a way to distribute music online and legally. DRM was the catalyst which got the record companies on board, despite it being clear that what the public wants is DRM-free music. And now that the whole DRM model has become increasingly unsustainable, everybody is tripping over themselves pointing fingers at each other and saying that the whole DRM thing was someone else's idea.

Hence, Universal are now claiming that Apple is addicted to DRM music, because it locks people into the iPod. True, Apple's-DRM based music will only play on iPods. But iPods will also play pretty much everything else except WAV. In fact it's a blatant lie: given that Steve Job's recent 'Thoughts on Music' was backed up by offering DRM-free music in collaboration with EMI on iTunes, it should be clear to anyone with a modicum of integrity that Apple isn't bothered about the so-called iPod lock-in. iTunes is the market leader; the iPod is the market leader; and they will both remain so because they simply blow the competition out of the water. Just like being able to install Windows on your Mac via Bootcamp: yes, Apple could lock you in to Mac OS X if they wanted, but given the choice, you're going to stick to Mac OS X anyway. People will use Bootcamp for playing games, that sort of thing—but they'll live in OS X because the user experience is so much better. At the risk of sounding too much like an Apple fan-boy, the key thing that you have to remember about Apple is that they are absolutely convinced that they don't need lock-in: they've got quality instead. Hence Job's comments that they won't be bringing out a budget-priced Mac even though it would garner market share—there's certain lines they won't cross, like releasing rubbish.

The whole DRM finger-pointing is just a distraction from the real issue, which is cleverly hidden down at the bottom of the NYT article:
Under Universal’s arrangements with digital retailers, at least some of its new music will be sold in unprotected form for 99 cents, company executives said.

At least some—that's the key. The problem is that Apple has steadfastly refused to change the pricing strategy on which iTunes is based—99¢ per song. When EMI and Apple launched the iTunes Plus concept, with DRM-free songs of twice the quality for $1.59, there was some discussion with how that would fit together with the rest of the store. Again, quality—this time of user experience. There is a simple, elegant pricing strategy which permeates everything. But once they were convinced that the whole online thing could be profitable, the big labels have decided that such transparency was not what they wanted (EMI excluded, hopefully). What they want is variable strategies, with 'budget' prices for back catalogues and premium prices for everything else. Lonny Donegan you'll be able to buy for peanuts; you want the Pussy Cat Dolls, you pay through the nose.

While Apple and EMI have shown us what the future of online music could look like, Universal are digging their heels in and trying to recapture the past—a past where the consumer is kept in the dark as much as possible, because lack of and clarity consumer iand clarity is deemed an economic advantage. This isn't about DRM at all. It's about whether quality vs. quantity, transparency vs. obfuscation. The basic aim is the same—naturally, all these companies want to make money—but the methods are different. Do they provide you with the kind of service where you part with your cash willingly, or manipulate you into thinking you're getting a bargain when you're not?