Friday, 10 February 2017

Album Review: Daryl Donald - Solitude

We were blessed with some incredible tapes from Scottish beatmakers last year. 2017 looks to be no different. Hannah Westwater reviews Edinburgh producer Daryl Donald's 'Solitude', his first full solo length album.

Daryl Donald - SolitudeBuy/listen here 

'Solitude' is an instrumental venture into a realm of laid-back jazz, hip hop and neo-soul, and it hits all the right spots. From the get go, Daryl Donald forges warm soundscapes thick with the sounds of wandering keys and erratic basslines over straightforward drum tracks.

Well catered to fans of J Dilla or some of MF Doom's smoother stylings, the project is primarily delicate and understated. Donald has already mastered the art of sonic layering without any of his sounds becoming too busy. 

On 'Solitude' he cultivates a dream-like quality which is polished but never without substance. Keys, strings, guitars, horns, and more overtly digital features all frequently feature and only contribute to the album's fluidity.

Despite its February release, the record sounds like a hazy summer evening spent with the windows open. Draped is particularly addictive, with silky keys dripping over the boom bap beat. Like several other tracks on the album it closes with a dramatic shift to something a little moodier and more jazz-based. Elsewhere, the darkly executed title track is even lower in tempo, occupying a greater level of sonic space.

The album’s only real downfall lies in track length, and even so it feels like little more than nitpicking. Most tracks come in somewhere around the 2 minute mark, meaning Donald can run the risk of presenting us with previews rather than fully-realised concepts. This is especially true on tracks like Night Games which see a modular shift towards the end, rendering the original beat even shorter – but the tracks flow so well that the impact of this is pretty minimal.

While 'Solitude' is often dominated by more soulful and jazz-fuelled flavours, its hip hop influences are laced throughout – most obviously so in Donald’s restrained but effective use of vocal samples, which read like a who’s-who of the genre. The final third of Smoke Signals sees the track mutate into an even more low key, almost r&b-tinged resolve, bodied by a short excerpt from Nas’ Surviving the Times. 

Later on the album, De La Soul makes an appearance on Crown through an Itzsoweezee sample layered over shadowy dissonance, sounding not at all out of place next to a clear-cut rock beat. There’s an element of introspection and self-awareness to the project, well exemplified by a sample of Todd Rundgren’s 1972 intro stacked at the front of After Malevich – notably also sampled by Madlib.

While these cuts tellingly demonstrate how well an emcee would fare over Donald’s production (see 'The Clockwork LP', his collab with Cutta Chase, for more of this and some harder beats), his work is strong enough as standalone material. Simultaneously intimate and detached, 'Solitude' blows a warm breath into the chilled out, dreamy vibe embodied by its title.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Battle Rap Resume Podcast: Don't Flop Scotland Recap

SSU Editor Jonathan Rimmer chatted to Tom Kwei on the excellent Battle Rap Resume podcast about Saturday's Don't Flop Scotland event. 

Subscribe to the podcast YouTube, iTunes, Podbean or by various other means.  

Click here for links to more hip hop comment from Jonny.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Album Review: Asthmatic Astronaut - This Is Not Pop

We've taken our sweet time getting to this one, but there's a lot to get through. Editor Jonathan Rimmer checks out the nineteen track monster that is 'This is Not Pop'. 

Asthmatic Astronaut - This is Not Pop
Buy Here

I've always been a fan of Scottish hip hop compilations. I know a lot of people see them as dated but they're a useful way to present the scene to people with only a passing interest (and just to plug, there are five SSU tapes that you can still download). 

Respected producer Asthmatic Astronaut is of the same mindset. In case you were in any doubt about the depth of talent lurking in Scotland's underground, 'This is Not Pop' features nineteen emcees and not one of them sounds out of place. But just to be clear: this isn't a compilation. This is very much Asthmatic Astronaut's baby, with each cut primed and tailored to a specific emcee (or the other way around - it's hard to tell).

Like most artists on the Black Lantern label, the Astronaut is attracted by the weird and esoteric. In fact, he's more akin to a scientist, painstakingly constructing beats to the point where minuscule details are often introduced at the back end of tracks without warning. It might be a switch up in the drums or a subtle countermelody in the synths or even a new sample entirely. With that said, none of the beats here seek to seize the attention away from the emcee. Taking his cues from 90s techno and IDM, Asthmatic Astronaut gives each beat a sense of personality and progression without detracting from whatever the emcee is saying. 

Unsurprisingly, this minimalist production lends itself way to more introspective rhyming styles. The wonky-inspired Kaczynski compliments Texture's philosophical monologues, for example, while The Bleakest Blues' more kinetic beat suits Solareye (Stanley Odd) intrepid flows and multisyllabics. There are exceptions: Johnny Cypher (Futurology) absolutely steamrollers Split Into Sections with crazy double time, making for probably the best verse on the LP. There's also a seriously catchy hook on the Conscious Route-led Addiction, which perhaps slightly undermines the album title. 

Other than that, there's a peculiar continuity to the concepts many emcees explore here, leading me to wonder how much editorial input Asthmatic Astronaut actually had. From Ciaran Mac to Lifeshows to The Replicator, a number of rappers touch upon writing in a 'dreamlike' state, the power of imagination or, you guessed it, space. Deliberate or not, it makes the record feel consistently ethereal even from the first listen.

In fact, 'This Is Not Pop' is probably the most coherent collection of Scottish hip hop released in the last year. Due to the sheer number of emcees and styles on show, it's a project that could have easily gone pear-shaped. Credit is due to Asthmatic Astronaut for bringing together so many artists and making them work under the same umbrella. Is it a tad long? Perhaps, but there aren't any glaring skippers, which for an album of this type is remarkably impressive.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Album Review: Brian Jamieson - Cover

Brian Jamieson has dropped his pseudonym, but he's still coming up with the goods. Stephen Butchard reviews his latest project.

Brian Jamieson - Cover

Brian Jamieson used to be called Damaged Goodz. Damaged. Goodz. With a Z. The dropping of such an amazing moniker is a bummer, without a doubt, but a quick google search proves the name to be a popular one – ‘z’ and all – so maybe the rebranding was a good move. Whether it’s as Damaged Goodz or his regular old Christian name, Jamieson is an artist that deserves attention. He’s been an unsung hero of Scotland’s underground hip-hip scene for years now, his dense bars, clever punchlines and barked delivery typifying the giddy spirit of a battle-centric movement.  What the change in moniker does highlight, though, is a move to more mature, personal avenues, something wholly explored on his latest release, ‘Cover’.

Along with producer and multi-instrumentalist Nick Turner, Jamieson has crafted a gritty character portrait of scheme-living, broken relationships and mended mental states. It’s an ambitious album, one with a bigger picture more than the sum of its parts. It brings to mind British hip-hop landmarks like the Street’s ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ and Kate Tempest’s ‘Everybody Down’ in its tight narrative focus and artistic presentation of working class life, though ‘Cover’ remains an Scottish album throughout. Jamieson’s humour, wordplay and grim tone feel at one with his peers, but the project’s incorporation of grime, jazz, metal, folk, and even IDM give it a breathless scope of its own.

The album tells the story of Sean, a man from a scheme trapped in a downward spiral that's the product of his addictions, vices and surroundings. Even in the album’s low-key moment’s, such as on ‘Water Under the Bridge’, Jamieson’s slick penmanship render his story with urgency: “Last orders at last chance saloon/I bark at the moon /the bar’s closing soon / I’m trapped in this gloom / my heart is in ruins / I’m in a dark room / my scars open wounds / friends and family fear I’ve lost the plot / trying to piece together last year dot-to-dot / swallow my wage wi’ these pills a doctor got / I’m an animal – leopards can’t change spot to spot”. A gathering of musical guests play roles that lift ‘Cover’s cinematic vision, but it’s Jamieson’s bars that give tangibility to the tale.

The album’s clear ambition make it easy to root for, and the sharp choruses on ‘Clock in/Clock out’ and ‘the Fantastic Adventures of Iceberg Grim’ will have listeners coming back  (in a making-of video, Jamieson speaks of wanting nothing more than to condense a message into three minutes, to reach new voices and touch someone who needs it). That said, the album’s messy delivery makes it frustrating to grapple with as a longform piece. The mixing is spotty throughout and it can be hard to make out Jamieson’s voice beneath audio sludge. Some of the accompanying melodies feel worn and ham-fisted, while the expository dialogue within them would give any film buff a migraine (the worst offender might be ‘playpen of mayhem (Welcome to Hainehill) – “I hold keys to the playpen, You’ll never see your baby again.”). Some of the experiments don’t completely land either, such as the acoustic waltz of ‘Behind Every Man There’s a Good Woman’, where Jamieson’s rocky flow threatens to collapse across its five minutes.

Unfortunately, 'Cover' never fully captures the power of its concept sonically, but highlights like 'Rage Against the Fruit Machine' - where Jamieson argues with a bartender for crying out loud - demonstrate it's still a worthy listen for any Scottish rap fan.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Album Review: Jackal Trades - Need the Character(s)

SSU kicks off 2017 with the first of many album reviews from our new writing team. On this one, Hannah Westwater tackles the new Jackal Trades record.

Jackal Trades - Need the Character(s)
Listen Here

Good art unashamedly shines a light on the issues touching society at its heart, and that’s what Need the Character(s) successfully attempts to do. With Mark McGhee (styled as McG) at the helm, this debut full length under the Jackal Trades moniker could hardly have been released at a more politically turbulent time, and the commentary threading the album together reflects as much.

Drawing on the production skills of some familiar names from across the country (e.g. Scatabrainz, Mackenzie, Soundthief), Need the Character(s)’ beats are very much its greatest asset, and what will keep listeners hooked. ‘Triangular Trades’, one of several stand-out tracks, sees McG echo: “They took our jobs/Who did – the robots?” over a dark trip hop-esque beat, lamenting colonialism to modern xenophobia and the common avoidance of Scottish culpability.

The industrial sounds featured on ‘Miley Syria’ can be found throughout the release. That track’s shift to gentle piano tones as the chorus hits, while not ineffective, is symptomatic of something the album could improve on. It’s experimental and rarely fails, but it’s difficult to pin down an identifier of the Jackal Trades sound. In a blooming scene, it will soon be the case that offering something uniquely recognisable without sacrificing creativity will be necessary in order to stand out.

That said, there’s no shortage of highlights to be found on the release. The tongue-in-cheek ‘Marilyn Monroe Logic’ (featuring Ella Maby) brags a criminally infectious hook, while ‘I Am the Fear…’ is a chagrined but fun exploration of the-day-after-the-night-before over an old school head bopper of a beat.

McG has a real talent for penning bars which can be wonderfully on-the-nose while remaining graceful and poetic. Rapping over the horns of ‘Character Building Society’, he drops slick lines like: “To predict is to gamble/to smile is to live/I have nothing in my savings/I have too much to give”, and “Karma’s not a theory, it is merely common sense/It’s a slow motion boomerang that knocks you off a fence”. 

This falters a little on atmospheric electronica track ‘Century of Self’, which seems like it should be one of the best tracks on the album, held back by missteps like “everyone holds a bank account but no one ever holds a bank to account” – well intentioned and certainly not terrible but shown up by the skill demonstrated elsewhere on the album. The majority of his flows are masterful, bold enough to grip a listener’s attention yet reasonably measured so as to weave in and out of first-rate instrumentals without overpowering his lyrics.

Need the Character(s) is an impressive effort from McG & co. showcasing beats which could be carried far beyond the realm of Scottish hip hop, as well as a well-judged mix of politically hard-hitting and tongue-in-cheek lyrics.  Perhaps the last word should be left with ‘Century of Self’, succinctly describing the reality of our political climate entering 2017: “This is not satire any more”.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Fresh Cuts Episode 3 - BBC The Social

Check out SSU editor Jonny's latest rounds of Fresh Cuts over on BBC The Social. Episode 3 focuses on female emcees in Scotland, looking at Qween Sweets (Northern Xposure), Be Charlotte, Empress and Ladyboss. Along with the likes of Erin Friel, Haylee G and Harlequin, are women finally getting some real representation in Scottish hip hop?

Coming up on SSU: Dabbla live review, third quarter album reviews, Soundcloud Goodies and a podcast featuring two brand new contributors.