Despite the ongoing pressing plant chaos and ever increasing costs of making records, 2021 saw more than a healthy amount (!) of exceptional releases, on every genre and format imaginable. My previous blog post focused on the singles and here I will put my attention to my favourite albums and reissues.
Early in the year I was enlisted by the VDS/Idle Moments team to help curate new releases for the shop. This meant being exposed to perhaps more new music than ever before in my life, at least on a long player format. There is a seemingly endless flow of fresh and exciting music being steadily released out there, which can be hard to navigate at times but ultimately is something to cherish and be raving about.
Even though the below list covers only a drop in an ocean of sound(s), this is definitely the biggest round-up I have ever done (not sure I will do this again on that scale!). Because of the LP format, most of these records are designed for home listening, though obviously there is music for all moments and situations in there, dance-floor included, with admittedly a strong (and assumed) bias towards hybrid music of a cosmic quality, encompassing ambient, jazz, dub, Afro, global, micro, macro,…
“Anything human can be felt through music, which means that there is no limit to the creating that can be done with music.” – Nina Simone.
For the first time ever (in the history of my round-ups) you will find reviewed a couple of albums which I couldn’t find on vinyl (by that I mean I blinked an eye and they were gone) and had to be content with buying the files instead. I’ve bought digi files in the past, though not very often and only for individual tracks. Music is music and good music is good music, regardless of the format. However I don’t have a streamer at home so very rarely play files, but now that I’ve “discovered” the Bandcamp app (fantastic for listening to music on the go), and with vinyls becoming a bit of a luxury, I’m guessing this will happen more and more.
While a platform like Bandcamp has kept on going from strength to strength, continuing since the start of the pandemic to give 100% of their takings to the artists on the first Friday of each month, the villain Spotify, not happy with paying abysmal payout rates to 99% of the artists present on their platform, has turned even uglier and within a year gave all these artists the middle finger, invested 100M € in the arms / weapon industry, and prioritised the toxic, racist figure of Joe Rogan over Neil Young… Anyone out there claiming to be left wing and still using that platform should seriously ask themselves a few questions.
… back to the music |[●▪▪●]|
One of the most exciting news of 2021 was the excellent (ongoing) podcast hosted by Jeremy Gilbert and Tim Lawrence, Love is the Message: Dance, Music and Counterculture, which covers just about all my favourite topics in the world, psychedelics, psychedelia, counterculture, the liberating forces of the dance-floor, philosophy, sociology, the ideas put forward by Paul Gilroy in his seminal book The Black Atlantic (which I mentioned in a recent post on gwoka) and much more.
Jem and Tim are obviously authorities in those fields, they are both erudite, elaborate and funny, passionate and consistently enlightening. I for one haven’t missed any of these (30+ and counting) episodes, and really hope this will go on for much longer. Selfishly really glad they lost half of their salaries and used their freed time to launch this podcast (!).
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(By alphabetical order)
Fatima Al Qadiri – Medieval Femme (Hyperdub)
I first got aware of Fatima Al Qadiri’s music via her immersive soundtrack of Mati Diop’s stunning Atlantics movie, a ghost story rooted in the modern world which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 2019. The Senegalese born but Kuwait raised producer started around that time to work on Medieval Femme, a sort of concept album inspired by the classical poems of Arab women from the medieval period, including the revered 7th century poet Al-Khansa (whose verses are used for the lyrics of ‘Tasakusa’).
This happens to be her third album for the revered dubstep label Hyperdub, though apart from ‘Sheba’ (the only track with a defined beat, which reminds me of the evocative urban soundscapes of Burial) you wouldn’t really tell. To be clear, this is definitely one of the most unique and idiosyncratic records I have listened to last year. The whole (30 minute) set is a deeply cinematic affair, in a very Twin Peaks/Blue Velvet kind of mould, with the altogether sparse, ethereal and haunting production of Al Qadiri’s soundscapes giving a decidedly synaesthesia inducing quality to the music.
What also makes this album extra special is how she uses the luth in a futuristic setting, such as on tracks like ‘A Certain Concubine’ and ‘Qasmuna (Dreaming)’. This dreamlike and cosmic quality permeates the music throughout, which also sounds eerily gothic at times (I was often reminded of the Cocteau Twins), but always manages to find some light in the darkness.
I’ll admit that I was at first taken aback by the alienness of this music, but after playing the album three times in a row, Al Qadiri’s vision slowly but surely opened up and I was fully drawn into her singular sonic world. One to get deeply immersed into, and with a vinyl pressing of the highest quality, this is no doubt an album that will become a landmark for years to come.
DJ Black Low – Uwami (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
2021 was the year I “discovered” – about half a decade late – the South African township-developed style amapiano, which is kind of a fusion between afro deep house and kwaito, two genres which are huge in SA.
Catchy piano melodies, deep bass lines, low tempo 90’s South African house rhythms and percussion loop samples from another local house sub genre known as ‘Bacardi’ are some of the ingredients of a style which seems to be constantly evolving.
At the ripe age of twenty, DJ Black Low offers one of the latest amapiano mutations with his album Uwami. Always playful and surprising, overflowing with ideas, his take is raw and direct, a super underground signature sound based on distorted samples and a creative choice of synths, and collaborations with a wide array of guest producers and vocalists singing in different South African languages.
The opener ‘Jaiva Low’, a collab with Hapas Music which features DJ KS and Patna is certainly the dopest, freshest and most spectacular club track to have come out not only in 2021 but possibly in the last decade. It was quite a revelation to hear that on the BATB system, something that doesn’t happen very often with new music. Truly smashing stuff.
While ‘Nine Days’ feat. Saxo Boy is equally devastating, the whole set reveals some sheer brilliance and fearless experimentation beyond the apparent simplicity of the music, which allows DJ Black Low to create a universe of his own. All of this through Fruity Loops – how incredible and just shows once again how talent and originality always matters more than equipment.
On a more classic (amapiano) note, the barely older Teno Africa had his own comp on Awesome Tapes From Africa, with a sound slightly less spectacular and more designed for home listening – the late night atmospherics of ‘Chants of Africa’ being an absolute favourite. Definitely one of the most inspiring and exhilarating electronic dance music in the world right now.
Bunn Debrett Quintet – Bunn Debrett Quintet (BDQ Records)
Bunn DeBrett Quintet is the project of drummer / percussionist Stephen Bunn (aka Bunny) and pianist/guitarist Jon deBrett who were the founding members of the 90s acid jazz outfit Mother Earth. Having both quit the music industry and not collaborated for nearly three decades, they bumped into each other in 2019 at the 100 Club at a gig featuring a new line-up of Mother Earth (!), and were inspired to collaborate again. They put together a quintet with bassist Neil Corcoran (also from Mother Earth), The Blow Monkeys’ Crispin Taylor on drums, Roger Beaujolais on vibraphone and a bunch of contemporary guests.
The unhurried and mellow vibe of the set is really striking, instantly pleasant to the ear, the kind of jazz music which seems tailor made for bright summer days. Tracks like ‘Just Another Sunday‘ and ‘Spirits Down Below’ sum it all up, sounding effortlessly cool, with an incredible soundstage and intimacy that makes us feel like we’re sitting amongst the musicians, chilling and enjoying the scene. Alongside Lady Blackbird’s this is best modern production and pressing I’ve heard not just in 2021 but in quite a while. Big up Frank Merritt at The Carvery for such an incredible mastering which really gives the album a timeless quality.
Oakland’s poet extraordinaire Tenesha the Wordsmith (who released her debut album Peacocks & Other Savage Beasts on On The Corners a couple years ago), makes a welcome appearance with her inspired spoken words on two beautiful, softly psychedelic cuts that could be best described as Balearic (nu) jazz ‘Praise Dance’ and ‘Long Road Strange Woman’, while Tamar “Collocutor” Osborn is the guest on the classy ‘Webster’, the funkiest track of the set with a groove that keeps revolving.
I have to thank my friends Sam Jacob for being the first to rave about this album when he dug out a copy from Audiogold, and Josh Beauchamp for providing me with a copy. The album was only released on Bandcamp and hand delivered to a few select London record stores. Truly a family affair and a labour of love from the new boys with a long history who have managed to make a bridge between the jazz scenes of the 90s and London’s innovative, contemporary movement of the present, creating an understated modern classic in the process. Apparently the follow-up is already planned for release sometime in ’22. Quite a resurrection!
David Ornette Cherry – Organic Nation Listening Club (The Continual) (Spiritmuse)
“This music is medicine for the soul of the people, for all humanity. A gift from the Motherland.”
(spiritual message from Crystal Blackcreek Carlisle in “The Ancestors”.)
David Ornette was born the same year (1958) Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry recorded their groundbreaking album, Something Else!!!!. Being born in such a cosmic-centered family, it is no surprise to find David Ornette, now in his 60s, still pursuing the cosmic trail and musical spirit(s) of such an impressive lineage.
“The music never stopped. Jazz is dynamic. It is a continuum that expands and takes from the players and composers so they add their little something to the art. It’s not about JUST referencing the past. It’s about keeping the momentum going like a ball that keeps rolling along.”
“My compositions are a musical fusion of cultures laid firmly down on a foundation of purely garage-style beats. It’s a union of textures, sounds, lifestyles, surroundings, and messages in a universal language emphasizing a positive state of mind.”
The revered Brown Rice and Orient LPs by Don Cherry come instantly to mind when listening to Organic Nation Listening Club (The Continual), as does Miles Davis’s On The Corner. (The Continual) is a mosaic of healing soundscapes blending spiritual jazz, leftfield electronica, Eastern & native indigenous sounds which toe a similar Ancient / Future path as that of their label-mate Kahil El’Zabar.
D.O. Cherry plays percussion, electronics, keyboards and douss’n gouni (a cousin of the kora), and performs with a diverse ethno-cosmic jazz ensemble which includes his nieces Tyso McVey and Naima Karlsson. While most of the tracks on the album are of a downtempo experimental mould and aimed as much for the mind as the body and soul, check out the hypnotic organic grooves of ‘Parallel Experience’ for some straight up ethno-funk and especially the majestic ‘Cosmic Nomad’ (the title referencing his father) for some freeform dance-floor action.
The UK based Spiritmuse Records, a label whose aim is to produce “carefully curated products for a deep listening, spiritual experience”, has within a few exceptional releases quickly become one of my favourite labels, and was the perfect suit to accompany Cherry’s musical vision.
Check out also Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble – Be Known: Ancient / Future / Music from 2019, one of my favourite jazz releases of recent years, as well as Cosmic Vibrations Ft Dwight Trible’s Pathways and Passages, also released in 2021.
Nahawa Doumbia – Kanawa (Awesome Tapes From Africa)
Kanawa is one of those albums I missed at the time of its release and never got quite round to listen to properly. It does seem sound good for sure, and I’ve always been a big fan of Nahawa Doumbia, so instead of a half review I will post here this clip of a sublime a cappella performance she did of her track ‘Banani’, an Afro digi reggae cut which is has been a big favourite at BATB for years.
Electric Jalaba – El Hal / The Feeling (Strut)
Electric Jalaba have been a live institution for nearly a decade, entrancing audiences from London’s beloved Passing Clouds to a plethora of UK venues and festivals worldwide with their modern take on Gnawa music.
The Keens are four brothers from Dorset who were pretty much born with instruments in their hands, and followed their eclectic musical path(s) ever since. Outside of the numerous solo projects and collabs (Olly and Henry’s Soundspecies being the most well known, for the classic Balafon Jam banger of course, but also for the incredible album they recorded in Cuba with Ache Meyi), the brothers have teamed up with drummer extraordinaire Dave De Rose and Morocco’s Simo Lagnawi to form Electric Jalaba about a decade ago.
Lagnawi is arguably the UK’s foremost maalem (master) of Gnawa music, and as part of Electric Jalaba their aim has always been to re-interpret and give a fresh take to some of the standards of the genre. El Hal/The Feeling is their third album, which sees them step up to big stage via the revered Strut label. This is their most accomplished studio effort, displaying a unique approach to the various cultures and peoples of North and West Africa (the Gnawa are descendants of sub-Saharan African slaves who originally came to Morocco in the 16th Century, and their music has always incorporated those influences). Cosmic flourishes (‘Tora Tora’), electro bangers (‘Cubaili Ba’) and psychedelic undertones that permeate the album throughout (check the mesmerizing ‘Briando’) come and mix perfectly with Gnawa’s entrancing rhythms and spirituality.
The whole set has a really futuristic feel to it, as exemplified on the single ‘Daimla’, an irresistibly groovy fusion of funk, call and response, Gnawa rhythms, and deep, dubbed out electronic undertones (courtesy of Henry Keen aka The Room Below), as well as their heavily percussive and psychedelic use of mbalax rhythms (‘Agia Hausa’).
“The trance-inducing effect of Gnawa was what hit us first. It was visceral, heart stopping. Simo selected the chant from the traditional song suites and, as a band, we extended these short pieces of ceremonial music and experimented with sound and structure.” (Olly Keen)
As the title goes, it’s a feeling – just let yourself be transported.
On a similar (cosmic North African) tip, though more traditional tip, don’t miss ‘At Pioneer Works’ by the phenomenal Les Filles de Illighadad band from Niger, a hypnotizing live performance which was recorded in 2019 and gives full justice to their unique fusion of ancient village choral chants and desert guitar blues. As entrancing as it gets.
Gilb’R – On Danse Comme Des Fous (Versatile)
When this album came out in March I was still immersed in the label’s superb previous release (the freeform jazz/shamanic dub UFO of Emmanuelle Parrenin / Detlef Heinrich’s Jours De Grève LP) and I didn’t notice it straight away. It was actually brought to my attention a few months ago by Gilb’r himself, and it really took me by surprise.
Inspired by his move to Amsterdam, the first solo album from the Versatile head honcho (the revered French label which has been going strong since 1995!) is a full on cosmic affair (one track is even called ‘Changa’), music to get lost into, stoned in the dark or while driving along deserted streets at night.
From the spectacular astral take off (‘Plantlife’) to the (Mars?) landing (‘Chorea Lasciva’) we are taken on a space odyssey, along a cosmic trail filled with unexpected (dance) moves and impromptu celestial contemplations. As the title implies, we indeed wiggle like crazy, caught in a cosmic dance that’s aimed for the mind rather than the body, bumping into fellow cosmonauts along the ride like Gilb’r’s long time acolyte I:Cube (‘Super Spreader’), Zombie Zombie’s Cosmic Neman (‘ Я не хочу знать’) and Jonny Nash (the dreamy ‘Café Del Pijp’).
It’s a full on trip, one that perfectly embodies the concept of “la danse cosmique” which I’ve been working on compiling this past year. Get on board!
Jaubi – Nafs At Peace (Astigmatic Records)
After a mini album and a pair of dope and highly collectable 7”s, the Pakistani quartet have dropped their first full length album, Nafs At Peace, on which they collaborate with special guests Tenderlonious from London (on flute and soprano saxophone) and Poland’s keyboard wizard Latarnik on a whole array of synths. Drawing inspiration from pioneers Coltrane, Lateef and Don Cherry, who first explored the links between jazz and classical Indian music, the set incorporates modal and spiritual jazz, hip hop vibes and cosmic funk with Indian mantras and classical music. Complete with exceptional mastering and sound quality, this is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished albums of the year.
As described in the liner notes, Nafs is the Arabic word for “Self”, and “Nafs At Peace” is the third level of Nafs as described in the Qur’an, the soul now in a tranquil state after having gone through the “inclined to evil” and “self-reproaching” stages.
The first step of the journey actually started on ‘Satanic Nafs’ (which refers to the lowest level of the Self), and was released earlier this year on one of the aforementioned 7”. Following up from there comes the healing, holy introduction of ‘Seek Refuge’ (featuring the Vox Humanan Chamber Choir), before the jazz fusion number ‘Insia’ kicks off the (cosmic) dance, with a killer groove and psychedelic synths galore.
The frantic, infectious raga ‘Gurji Todi’ then ups the tempo dramatically as the musicians take turn in soloing, taking us along an improvised raga-jazz trance workout. Things calm down and become more serene on ‘Straight Path’, which happens to be a verse in the first chapter of the Qu’ran, and the first song the musicians created during the three days they spent in the Lahore recording studio in 2019. A kind of transcendental, spiritual awakening of sorts, and the album’s thematic and musical centrepiece.
The journey then continues from strength to strength until we reach the majestic ‘Nafs At Peace”, which is dedicated to John Coltrane, whose devotional offering to God ‘A Love Supreme’ guided the band throughout this album. The soul has reached its tranquil state and the journey ends on this cosmic spiritual masterpiece. Outstanding album!
Malcolm Jiyane Tree-O – UMDALI (Mushroom Hour Half Hour)
The great SA label Mushroom Hour Half Hour, who first caught my attention in 2020 with the release of the fascinating project album ‘Buffering juju’ by Cape Town-based artists Dumama and Kechou, brought us this year UMDALI, the first album as a bandleader by South African trombonist, multi-instrumentalist and painter Malcom Jiyane.
Recorded in Johannesburg with a 9-piece ensemble of musicians mostly based around Soweto’s jamming scene, the album is of a deep, spiritual mould, delving deep into past traumas and tragedies, both of the personal and collective kinds, while offering a deep longing for hope and appetite for life. The music’s unhurried pace is key UMDALI, its expansive space giving room to all musicians from the Tree-O to improvise around familiar themes, traditions and fresh ideas. The atmosphere and creative energy on display is a joy to dive in, making for a perfect deep and immersive Sunday morning listen.
From the Hancock referencing ‘Umkhumbi kaMa’ (an ode to all mothers) to the poignant ‘Life Esidimeni’, one can only be drawn into the subtle depth and confidence oozing from the ensemble. The set slowly builds towards ’Moshe’ the centrepiece of the album, dedicated to the late prodigal pianist and stellar composer Taiwa Moses Molelekwa (whose seminal Genes and Spirits LP was recently reissued by Matsuli Music).
At twenty plus minutes per side, the pressing is on the quiet side but stays dynamic enough to reveal all the depth and nuances of UMDALI, a majestic and spellbinding achievement which will surely become a landmark South African jazz album.
KMRU – Logue (Injazero)
Though a revelation to me, the Kenyan ambient prodigy KMRU has been making a lot of joyful noise over the last few years, prolifically releasing music on a bunch of labels including Warp, and collaborating with artists like Luke Vibert (he of “I Love Acid” fame). Born in Nairobi but now based in Berlin, the grandson of the late Joseph Kamaru (king of the popular Kenyan folk genre kikuyu benga), is a master at finding organic sound samples, be they from people, cities or nature, and fusing them though gentle analogue synthesis with a wide array of ambient electronics.
Logue is a collection of early tracks he self released on Bandcamp from 2017 and ’19, which are curated to perfection and make for a deeply immersive listen from start to finish, the music ceaselessly pointing to the interconnections between humanity and landscape.
The track ‘OT’ for instance has the perfect balance between organic samples of evocative urban sounds and infectious human laughter, with floaty and slightly menacing synths that conjure up open vistas. This is music that invites the mind to wander, creating stories, and conjuring up emotions, and which sounds especially spectacular on headphones, or driving at night in the countryside.
Logue is a truly groundbreaking landmark for African ambient electronic music from the Ableton workshop ambassador, to be filed alongside the fellow Berlin based sound artist Emeka Ogboh (hailing from Nigeria) and his Beyond The Yellow Haze album. Both works are spectacular examples of forward-thinking electronic which expertly blend the most modern ambient sensibilities with their local cultural and musical traditions, bringing something hugely refreshing.
Midori Hirano – Soniscope (Dauw)
Hirano is a Japanese musician, composer, sound artist and producer, born in Kyoto but based in Berlin for a decade or so. She produces ambient soundscapes through minimal piano compositions paired with electronic sounds and the occasional field recordings.
Her latest release is an album which grew on me over time. I needed several immersive listens to get fully drawn into her haunting sonic universe, and all the better for it. Once the doors opened it was a joy to be transported across the bittersweet, pastoral landscapes that form Soniscope. The title of the album itself gives a good indication of the evocative and breadth quality of her music.
Hirano has a background of writing for films and theatre productions, which can be heard in her deeply cinematic soundscapes, as on the opener ‘Missing Night’ (which uses her samples footsteps in the snow). Her sound is altogether relaxing and slightly ominous, as on ‘Collapsing Planet’, which she says was inspired by “the sound of the strings (played by Atsuko Hatano) slowly rising and falling in response to my piano gave me an image of a planet falling apart.” As a side note, I find it fascinating to see her constant interest in all things cosmic and especially “in the relationship between the celestial bodies and the Earth”, coming after having named her 2015 album Minor Planet.
Elsewhere we find ourselves floating through the purely electronic soundscapes of ’Strings of Memories’, while ‘Patterns’ takes us into the dreamed chill out back-room of a Berlin hangout (check out also the superb digi only remix by Foam and Sand). Best enjoyed in the dark or on a grey morning (dancing snowflakes outside the window an additional bonus), the set closes on a hopeful note with the majestic ‘White Sands’.
Lady Blackbird – Black Acid Soul (Foundation Music Production)
Black acid soul. There is no escaping such a genius title, and just a few seconds into ‘Blackbird’, the stunning cover of Nina Simone which opens the album, you already know how deep and beautiful this album will be.
We’re deep in jazz noir, late night soul territory, the lights are low, the whisky without the rocks, and Lady Blackbird sings the blues, as on the poignant ‘Nobody’s Sweetheart’ featuring trumpetist Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews on a Chet Baker tip, or on the majestic ‘Lost and Lookin’’, a cover of James W. Alexander.
Blackbird’s intoxicating smoky voice hovers around similar heights (and depths!) as those of Billie, Nina and Amy’s, effortlessly conveying so much emotion and authenticity without a single trace of pathos.
The set consists of a mix between originals and covers of beloved songs which the band confidently appropriates, like with Nina’s aforementioned ‘Blackbird’, Joe Walsh on the majestic ‘Collage’, and Bill Evans on ‘Fix It’, an incredible re interpretation of the classic instrumental “Peace Piece.”
The pianist Deron Johnson, who plays Steinway Baby Grand, mellotron and Casio synth throughout, is an absolute delight of understatement and intimacy, as are all the musicians involved really. The production by Chris Seefried (captured in L.A.’s Sunset Sound Studio B, aka “Prince`s Room”) is truly exceptional and serves the music perfectly. Spare and intimate, with spot on mastering and a soundstage that makes you feel like you’re in the room with the band. The dead quiet and dynamic audiophile pressing is equally spectacular – definitely the best sounding vinyl I bought in ’21, alongside the Bunn DeBrett Quintet’s.
‘Black Acid Soul’, the only instrumental piece, featuring a stunning mellotron solo from Johnson, closes this crucial album in a spectacular David Axelrod / Cinematic Orchestra orchestral soul fashion. Instantly timeless.
Big up Ross Allen’s Foundation Music label for setting up such high standards. Black Acid Soul will without a doubt be remembered as a classic debut album for years to come.
PS: the band recorded a Worldwide FM session in Gilles Peterson’s basement which is well worth a watch.
Maurice Louca – Saet El Hazz (The Luck Hour) (Northern Spy)
The title Saet el Hazz is a coded saying in Egypt which refers to a good time and usually implies a great deal of debauchery. “When you mention to someone that you’ve had a saet hazz, there are no questions asked. It is what it is.”
Maurice Louca is an experimental musician and composer from Cairo, Egypt, who released his fourth “solo” album last year on the US label Northern Spy. He was joined by the Lebanese improvisational group “A” Trio, as well as Anthea Caddy, a cellist from the Berlin free improv scene, harpist Christine Kazaryan and multi percussionist Khaled Yassine, both of whom had played with Louca previously as part of the Praed Orchestra! project.
Recorded over a week in Brussels, the result of this lucky debauchery (!) is a long form composition of six movements – best listened to on the CD format – where simple acoustic guitar melodies provide a bed for drones and noise and all sorts of textural improvisation. It can be challenging listening at times (‘Yara’), but for the most part Saet El Hazz is rather entrancing and always fascinating. The last three movements for instance, which all blend together starting with the title track ‘Saet El Hazz (The Luck Hour)’ and continuing into ‘El-Gullashah (Foul Tongue)’ before concluding with the majestic ‘Higamah (Hirudinea)’, manage to sound light and intense at the same time, like a fusion of sorts between the spirituality of Alice Coltrane, the cosmic fulgurances of Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders and the psychedelic folk of Tim Buckley. Truly mind bending stuff.
Madlib – Sound Ancestors (Madlib Invasion)
The release early in the year of Madlib’s collab with Kieren Hebden rightly generated a lot of hype… and for once it didn’t disappoint. Hebden’s role was to “arrange, edit, manipulate and combine the hundreds of pieces of music (he was sent) over a couple of years”, which must have been quite a (messy!) labour of love!
The finished product is equally weird, experimental, funky, head noddy and playful, just what you would expect of a Madlib/Beat Conductor album, with Four Tet perhaps bringing a nice atmospheric feel overall. This is definitely one album which has enjoyed multiple repeats, and, surprise surprise, it does get better with every listen (and with good weed too of course). To be filed next to Donuts as one of the all-time great instrumental hip-hop records.
There is a deep lineage of (mostly) black music that runs through Sound Ancestors , and, as often with Madlib, the most fun part of listening to this album is to try to identify some of the dozens of samples which give the themes to each track, ranging from the obvious (Snoop Dog, Young Marble Giants, Lynn Collins) to the obscure, from folk to post punk to soul, jazz, African and Brazilian. The Quartabê one (a band which I was truly mesmerised by during their live performance in Shizuoka’s Frue Festival a few years back) at least, is already given.
On this note, the legendary crate digger/record seller Victor Kiswell, who provided a huge amount of sampling material to Madlib in the early days, did some great series of posts on his IG account recently reminiscing about his friendship with Madlib, which makes for a really entertaining read.
Carlos Niño & Friends – More Energy Fields, Current (International Anthem)
Following on to the stunning Chicago Waves, the recording of a live performance between Carlos Niño and his long time collaborator Miguel Atwood-Ferguson published in 2020 on the fascinating International Anthem label (one of my favourite albums of 2020), comes More Energy Fields, Current, the new edition of his Niño and friends project.
The prolific LA beatdown / spiritual jazz shaman has gathered pieces he recorded pre pandemic with some (many!) of his friends and fellow cosmic wanderers, Jamael Dean, Randy Gloss, Devin Daniels, Sam Gendel, and Laraaji, with the addition of DNTEL and Shabaka Hutchings being welcomed aboard the communal mothership. These musical vignettes were then pieced together during lockdown by Niño himself, acting as a bandleader, producer and collage artist altogether.
The set opens and closes with the same theme, ‘Please, wake up’, a call for awareness and higher consciousness, featuring the brief and all too essential presence of Shabaka Hutchings on a circular spiral tip reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders’ ‘Kazuko’.
The overall vibe in between is altogether deep, floaty and exploratory, featuring modular synth musings aplenty, and a trademark mix of cosmic new age odysseys à la Iasos (one of Niño’s mentors, as acknowledged on the space interlude ‘Iasos 70’til Infinity’) with freeform spiritual jazz of the most transcendental kind (‘Salon Winds’).
Highlights range from the subaquatic depths of ‘Nightswimming‘, to cinematic film noir soundscape (‘Now the background is the foreground‘), to the ethereal cosmic landscapes of ‘Ripples Reflection Loop (with Laaraji) and ‘Togetherness’. However, as with most of Niño’s output, it is with repeated and dedicated total immersions that the music (Niño’s vision especially) will come into its own to reveal its higher, universal love powers.
Somewhat moodier and less expansive than usual, More Energy Fields, Current could well be heard as the night time companion to Chicago Waves’ early morning soundtrack; offering yet another facet of the genius of Niño as a curator of sounds, waves and, indeed, energies.
Also on International Anthem check out Jamire Williams’ haunting But Only After You Have Suffered LP as well as Jeff Parker – Forfolks (see below)
Other Lands – Sounds For Isolated Souls (Circles And Phases)
Other Lands is the new moniker of Gavin Sutherland, the Scottish producer who for the best part of two decades recorded (as Fudge Fingas) some fine intergalactic deep house and left field electronic gems for the Edinburgh-based Firecracker label. Tracks like ‘Untytled’ or Vakula’s remix of ‘What Works’ are still favourites in my book (the “la dance cosmique” playlist that is).
With Lindsay Todd’s revered label now sadly defunct, Sutherland has decided to get his own label off the ground, Circles and Phases, and put together some of his recent productions as Other Lands for the first release. Away from the actual dance-floor (suitably these tracks were originally released on Bandcamp during lockdown, at a time when dancing was happening mostly in our minds), these Sounds For Isolated Souls are a collection of cosmic ambient and exploratory, floaty pieces which flow together swimmingly.
The blueprint of Larry Heard’s seminal ‘Flight of the Comet‘ is often present (‘De Sember’, ‘See Sharp’), as well as that of Broadcast’s, interestingly a band whose influence seems to be more and more felt in recent years (‘Easings’).
Elsewhere, the splendid ‘Cas Rock’ which opens the B side is arguably the highlight of the set, a slow mo cosmic odyssey which sounds incredible played loud or on the headphones, while tracks like ‘Pine Barrens’ or the aptly titled ‘Remain Indoors’ keep the inner journey soothing and levitative. One best embarked at night, on a total immersion tip.
Jeff Parker – Forfolks (International Anthem)
This meditative solo guitar album by Jeff Parker was recorded over two days in June 2021, mixed in a month and released a few months later. Quite a feat when you know how long most releases take these days to go from inception to finished product.
Parker was (and still is I guess) the guitarist in the cult post rock band Tortoise, one of the really important bands during my (halcyon) student years as they (alongside Labradford and a bunch of others) were influential, be it consciously or not, to broaden my tastes not only into a certain type of textural jazz, but also to the kind of freeform and expansive soundscapes I love to get lost into to this day.
On Forfolks, Parker is on his own with his guitar, pedals and effects being the only artifices. Not here to impress, the emphasis is on sound and texture rather than virtuosity. There’s a deeply hypnotic, levitating feeling induced by the throbbing drones, delicate melodies and multi-layered improvisations on display, even more so when listening to the set on repeat.
The album includes a splendid interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ugly Beauty’ and a new version of ‘La Jetée’ (a tune he originally recorded in his post rock days with Isotope 217° in 1998), as well as four totally new loop-driven, stratiform works that marry melodic improvisation with electronic textures. ‘Excess Success’ for instance is one such cosmic delight, sounding altogether complex and yet so simple, minimal and yet so deep. One to get wrapped in and lost in sound.
With such spectacular releases including Angel Bat Dawid’s The Oracle, Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger’s Force Majeure, as well as those of Carlos Niño’s, the Chicago label International Anthem has been going from strength to strength, quietly fulfilling its mission “to make positive contributions to the changing state of the music industry, and to vitalise the demand for boundary-defying music by presenting unique sounds in appealing packages to untapped audiences”.
Hania Rani – Live from Studio S2 (Gondwana)
The genius neo classical pianist and composer Hania Rani was the source of one of the biggest buzz last year, with her live performance from Polish Radio’s Studio S2 literally breaking the internet (3M+ views and counting) when released on YT by Gondwana Records (the fantastic label ran by Matthew Halsall). Quite a feat considering the depth and nature of her music (which doesn’t quite have the click bait appeal coming out of a marketing designer’s brain), but so well deserved and so refreshing to witness.
I caught half of her set on my birthday when she played live at St John’s Church in Hackney and despite the coldness of the venue it was indeed a pretty spectacular and all engrossing performance. Would love to see her again in a place like Union Chapel.
Saphileaum – Transpersonal Experience (Good Morning Tapes)
Good Morning Tapes is this super cool niche label from the south of France which has been quietly releasing cassettes tapes and limited vinyl runs since 2017, through a roster of artists and musicians operating off the grid on a predominantly mystical, ambient and leftfield electronic tip.
Andro “Saphileaum” Gogibedashvili is the epitome of a modern shaman, a multi media artist who transmits his cosmic energy out of Tbilisi, Georgia. Under the Saphileum moniker he produces ambient, techno, downtempo and dub, as we can hear on his latest mini LP, Transpersonal Experience, whose title translates as “a state in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, cosmos”.
“My Grandfather, who played a grand role as one of the Masters in my upbringing, introduced me to Omar Khayyam, Rumi, Nizami Ganjavi, Saadi and other Persian philosophers and poets. Basically the whole Sufi poetry, teaching, vision and being is the major and vibrant source of a dancing inspiration for the album.”
It’s no surprise then that upon putting Transpersonal Experience on the deck for the first time I’ve instantly felt a deep sense of calm and serenity. From cosmic sunrise to Balearic sunset, this album has been a joy to dive into and the perfect soundtrack whenever I needed to drift off, along the lolling tribal pulse of ‘Kaf’ or ‘Ra’ or deep into the sublime tropical landscapes of ‘Ta’.
Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8 (Warp)
The debut album from the half Martinican half Belgian composer, harpist and synth player Nala Sinephro was without a doubt at the centre of the biggest hype craze of the year. Despite the artist being virtually unknown before, the vinyl apparently sold out within 24 hours of its release on Bandcamp, with prices going instantly nuts on the ‘cogs. I couldn’t get a copy for myself nor for Idle Moments, but I did manage to grab a pair of tickets for her sold out show at eArtH in Dalston, which turned out to be the most spectacular gig of the year.
Sinephro wrote and recorded this emotional and cathartic album in 2018 and 2019 while recovering from a tumour. She claimed that the album-making process was therapeutic for her, and indeed the healing qualities of the sound can be heard throughout the album.
Nala plays pedal harp alongside modular synths and a Prophet 08 polyphonic synthesiser, adding layers of audio processing to create music that is full on cosmic and transcendental, with a strong emphasis on drones and free form improvisation. Witnessing her live piloting the cosmic spaceship with such confidence was quite a mind-blowing experience, even more so considering his young age (25) – the album itself was recorded when Sinephro was 22, when she was not working behind the counter of Cosmos Records on Hackney Rd.
All I can say is… believe the hype!
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Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future (Impulse)
A year after the fantastic We Are Sent Here By History LP by Shabaka And The Ancestors (one of my favourite albums of 2020), Shabaka Hutchings ,the visionary London saxophonist, clarinetist, band leader and emblematic figure of the current wave of UK jazz, has returned with Black to the Future, the fourth album with his Sons of Kemet project (also on Impulse). Here we find the band on a similar pan-African tip, with an especially strong nod to Caribbean music and especially sound system culture.
This is fierce party music with a political message, with themes entered around Black British identity (the album was conceived shortly after George Floyd’s murder), at once futuristic and rooted in the past. Indeed Sons of Kemet (who take their name from the pre-colonial name for Egypt) is a powerful dance-jazz quartet which fuses together elements of modal and free jazz, grime, dub, Ethiopian jazz, and Afro-Caribbean music, as powered by the characteristic low-slung tuba of Theon Cross anchoring not one but two drummers/percussionists, Tom Skinner and the fantastic Eddie Wakili-Hick (who also plays with Nala Sinephro and was the drummer at that aforementioned extraordinary live performance).
Three tracks on the album are especially extraordinary and devastating on a dance-floor:
First of all, ’Hustle’ which features British rapper Kojey Radical as well as Lianne La Havas on vocals, is perhaps the best example of where this band’s at: a fresh, modern and proud UK take on socially conscious Afro jazz music, which has the spirit of Fela Kuti hovering over it and is also certainly the most danceable track of the set – check the video clip below, possibly the best of the year imo.
“when I hear D Double E, I hear someone who is reflecting what it means to me of the Caribbean diaspora within London and to take the essence of the music from the Caribbean into the present.”
Next comes ‘For the culture’, which features grime MC Double E and a heavy, dirty tuba riff from Theon Cross (also his brother Nathaniel on trombone). As described by Hutchings, this track “puts me back into what it felt like to be a teenager in Barbados in the ’90s, going into the dance halls and really learning what it is to dance. It’s not just all about it being hard and struggling and striving; there is that fun element of celebrating what it is to be sensual and to be alive and love music and partying and just joyfulness.”
If any proof was needed, it certainly worked a treat on the All Our Friends dance-floor.
The third big highlight is the incredible instrumental ‘Let The Circle Be Unbroken‘, a cut with a fluid reggae/soca backbone which suddenly shifts into a fierce and disjointed free jazz finale, with Hutchings says was inspired by Hermeto Pascoal. The effect is incredibly powerful.
“This Black sorrow is dance/ This Black praise is dance/ This Black struggle is dance.” (Joshua Idehen)
Pauline Anna Strom – Angel Tears In Sunlight (RVNG Intl)
Strom was a composer, musician and healer who lived and worked in San Francisco, CA. She self-released a series of tapes in the early 80s under the Trans-Millenia Consort name – which were compiled a few years ago by RVNG Intl – before giving up the music and becoming a Reiki master. The success of that compilation encouraged Strom to buy new equipment (having sold all her synths) and record the music which form Angel Tears In Sunlight. Tragically she died shortly before its release, leaving the world with this album as a sonic epitaph, and a fantastic discography of timeless music that will transport and heal listeners for generations.
One just needs a single listen of 1983’s ‘Freebasing’ to be instantly drawn into Strom’s space ambient universe, one where bands like Cluster, Harmonia and Klaus Schultze travel aboard similar spaceships.
The new album is an otherworldly beauty, the kind of record to reach to on a beautiful Sunday morning to enjoy and accompany a cosmic sunrise. While ‘Marking Time‘ is a dark ambient odyssey, with tracks titles like ‘Tropical Convergence’, ‘Equatorial Sunrise’, ‘Small Reptiles on the Forest Floor’, ‘Tropical Rainforest’, we find ourselves mostly immersed in an altogether luxurious and mysterious tropical dream.
Strom, who was born blind, hence described her creative process to FACT magazine:
“When I see things in my head and when I dream, I dream in color (…). I used equipment and electronics to create intervals, to create spaces, to create all kinds of things, not just the musical notes. (..). I like to create what’s in my head and interpret that into sound. Something like drops of water in a cave, I don’t want to sample the water; I want to create the water through algorithms of the DX that modulates all that stuff.”
Angel Tears In Sunlight is a testament to the healing wisdom coming through Storm’s outsider synthesizer music, a musical gift to the world.
PS: while we’re on the topic of women pioneers in the realm of electronic music, here’s an absolutely fantastic documentary which came out last year, Sisters with Transistors directed by Lisa Rovner. Tip!
The Sultan’s Swing – Matter Of Urgency (Lazy Robot Records)
One of the first albums to come out in 2021 was Matter Of Urgency, the latest offering from the London based multi instrumentalist, producer and composer Tom Funk. The global events of 2020 triggered deep creative reactions across cultural fields, and Matter Of Urgency was a prime example, a meditative journey borne from personal struggle through various shades of cosmic and spiritual jazz.
The album came together out of long improvised jams, on which influences ranging from Lonnie Linton Smith to Ravi Shankar mix with the more contemporary leanings of a band rooted in the UK jazz scene. Interestingly, outside of the urgency of the title track, the overall feel is one of healing, as the music flows unhurriedly through softly psychedelic and soothing sounds (the majestic ‘Sound Of Pulsar’). Born out of urgency but here to last, this is deep, modern jazz music in motion.
Tomaga – Intimate Immensity (Hands in the Dark Records)
Intimate Immensity is the sixth album by Tomaga, the London based duo made of multi-instrumentalist Tom Relleen (To) and percussionist Valentina Magaletti (maga). The album was completed before Relleen’s untimely death at the age of 42 in August 2020. A well known and revered figure on the London scene, Relleen was the co-founder of Phonica records, a true music head with multiple projects on the go and a life dedicated to the cause. You can read Simon Rigg’s poignant tribute here.
Together with Magaletti (whose collaborative side project from a few years back with fellow percussionist Julian Sartorius was a real treat) they created a unique fusion of krautrock, electronic rock a la Kreidler and Silver Apples, ethno jazz inflections, dark electronica and majestic ambient psychedelia (‘Reverie for Fragile Houseplants’).
Intimate Immensity is such a perfect title, as the band references Gaston Bachelard’s cult ‘The Poetics of Space’ essay, a journey through space and the influence of architecture on the psyche. Indeed, as described by the label, the album was recorded at Tom’s “bunker” “during the days off from live performances and challenging collaborations throughout the world, (and) collects ten intense tracks that outline a breath-taking epiphanic journey revisiting the multifaceted worlds explored by the band in seven years of non-stop and mostly live activity”.
The whole album is based on rhythms and atmosphere, mostly wordless except for the very Broadcast-like ‘Very Never (My Mind Extends)’ featuring Cathy Lucas on vocals, each track leading us ‘Intimate Immensity’, the sublime closing track which gives its name to the album and ends the journey on an open and blissful infinite. What a testament.
“Daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.” (Bachelard)
Wau Wau Collectif – Yaral Sa Doom (Sahel Sounds)
Sahel Sounds is this great label operating out of Portland, Oregon which focuses on traditional and modern popular music from the Sahel region. The last releases I got from them were this phenomenal pair of Saharan folk / cosmic synth UFO LPs from Niger, Mamman Sani’s Taarit and Hama’s Torodi, two albums I’m hugely fond of and which perfectly embody the cosmic dance concept I keep on referring to.
These came out a few years ago already and I somehow missed what came afterwards, up to 2021 that is and the release of not one but two fantastic albums, the aforementioned live album ‘At Pioneer Works’ by Les Filles de Illighadad (also from Niger), and Yaral Sa Doom by the Wau Wau Collectif. This project is a collaboration between more than 20 artists from Senegal and Sweden, which came about after music archaeologist and musician Karl Jonas Winqvist visited Toubab Dialaw in Senegal, befriended local musicians, percussionists, poets and beat makers and recorded a few improv sessions. Back home in Sweden, Winqvist enlisted friends to add sax, keys, and more, then passed the files back and forth over WhatsApp with Arouna Kane, the multi instrumentalist and studio engineer based in Senegal.
In 2020 Jack Wyllie had released his great Paradise Cinema LP (part of my 2020 best of), which also saw the producer recording local musicians in Senegal and adding overdubs back home. Both projects could sound borderline and verge on cultural appropriation, but I see these more as great examples of visionary exchanges that can result in fresh and unique forms of hybrid genres, with music files being exchanged and collaborated on freely via the internet. Whereas Paradise Cinema’s music was quite intense and full on transcendental, Wau Wau Collectif’s music is spacious and incredibly light, always lively, with a dream like quality that permeates the whole set.
From the opener ‘Yaral Sa Doom’, a kind of levitating Afro reggae groove with enchanted flutes, atmospheric keys, chilled percussion and hypnotic spoken word in Wolof by the poet Djiby Ly, you know instantly you’re in for a treat. Mood is prioritised over structure, as tracks segue into each other and the albums feels more like a collection of vignettes than proper songs. The sweet, softly psychedelic, lullaby quality of songs like ‘‘Salamaleikoum’, the marvellous ‘Mouhamodou Lo and His Children’ or the majestic closer ‘Legui Legui’ are truly infectious, in a happy stoned kind of way.
Yaral Sa Doom is the perfect album to get lost into, an imaginary soundtrack that makes you travel across a joyful and ethereal universe. Perhaps inevitably, I was reminded of our very own Blackbush Orchestra’s Famiglia E.P., a project which also reflected the meeting of artists from Senegal and Europe.
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(By alphabetical order)
Ambient Warrior – Dub Journey’s (Isle Of Jura)
“This is Ambient Warrior…coming to you from the heart.”
The ever great Isle of Jura label almost always features in my end of the year reviews, and this year is no exception with the crucial reissue of Ambient Warrior’s sole album, originally released in 1995. As the title implies, the spirit of the dub guides us throughout the journey, a very UK strand of cosmopolite dub music which follows in the footsteps of bands like African Head Charge, Revolutionary Dub Warriors, or the little known 1987 Wilderness LP by Joshua, while also very likely influencing some of the seminal French dub outfits of the 90s like Zenzile (heroes of my youth).
The scope is really broad, taking in various musical influences from across the globe and joining the dots between dub and world music, free parties and reggae sound systems.
Founder Ronnie Lion, who was running the cult roots label Lion Music in Brixton, teamed up with Andrea Terrano, a talented guitar and piano player who was also teaching engineering, with the aim “to create music that reflected our diverse influences. Andreas is of Italian, Armenian and Russian heritage and these musical influences clearly come through on the LP; over a dub and reggae backdrop you’ll hear a tango and bossa nova style. The players on the album also come from different nationalities and genres, not just from the reggae scene, so this really created something authentic and unique”.
The floaty, late night dub of ‘Night Flight Over Trieste’ is a superb example of this fascinating fusion, which sounds equally at ease in a stoned after hours setting as it does on a contemplative Balearic sunset kind of scene. Ambient Warriors let the music breathe and organically develop, anchored by deep and earthy bass lines, with lots of unexpected (cosmic) sounds and details and delays coming in and out along the journey.
The atmospheric digi dub (!) banger ‘Cajun Dub’ is another big highlight, as is the majestic
‘Oceanic Dub’, a deep and melodic ethno-dub affair with an oriental feel to it. This track was the B side of a cult 7” by Ronnie Lion, which features the incredible (Greek) vocal version on the A side, ‘My Island I Will Never Forget’, also reissued by Isle of Jura last year. Truly one of a kind.
Dub Journey’s is ital food for your mind and body, an album to be listened to at home on a contemplative mode, facing the sun setting on the horizon or to nice up the dance on the floor. Big fave.
Évé – Canto Aberto (Komos)
Canto Aberto, the Brazilian Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) lost classic from 1979, has long been a holy grail for connoisseurs, not least because it featured on Chee Shimizu’s cult “Obscure Sound” book from 2013. Original copies had become increasingly hard to find, and the timely reissue on the faultless Komos label gave the album a well deserved wider exposure.
Recorded in Paris by guitarist and songwriter Everaldo Marcial, who had fled the country’s military dictatorship in 1974 to settle in France, Canto Aberto would be his one and only recording, made shortly before he moved to the US in the early 80s and quit music.
The highlight of the set might be the title track “Canto Aberto”, an irresistibly beautiful chilled MPB tune which sees Évé duetting with fellow Brazilian expat Manduka on both guitar and vocals, but the whole album is a fantastic listen from start to finish, filled with standout tunes, altogether soft, dynamic and with a mysterious atmosphere all over.
“Falar Da Vida Alheia” is a percussive Brazilian jazz fusion grower which features African American Bruce Tobé Grant on tenor saxophone, some incredible material for the most discerning dancers of both Dingwalls and Beauty & the Beat.
‘Os Ratos’ is a gorgeous cover of Lô Borges’ ‘Trem de Doido’ (from everyone’s favourite Clube da Esquina album), with Tobé Grant this time on oboe, while elsewhere we joyfully navigate between the superb MPB opener ‘Nego’ and the dreamy instrumental acoustic folk of “Sala Dos Espelhos”, all the way to ‘Berimbois’, the closing song which features Luis Figuieiredo on berimbau and will no doubt be popular with fans of Codona and Egberto Gismonti.
Remastered from the original master tapes, the sound on this reissue is absolutely stunning, open and airy like a bright summer night. An essential release through and through.
Akira Ito – Marine Flowers (Science Fantasy) (Glossy Mistakes)
People in Japan have always been well attuned to their connection with their surrounding landscape, be it dense urbanism or (especially) wild landscapes and Nature. Artists and musicians from the island naturally draw inspiration from the spectacular environment they live in, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, via Mt Fuji of course, the Pacific ocean, wild streams, birds, monkeys… Jazz artists in particular, like Masahiko Togashi on the 1976 ’Spritual Nature’ LP recorded whole albums inspired by the sounds of nature. Then in the mid 1980s came the kankyō ongaku music genre (meaning “environmental music”), in reaction to the rapid urbanisation and economic development of the time. Influenced by the works of Erik Satie and Brian Eno, it consists of minimalist electronica infused with the ambient sounds of nature. One of the most well known albums might well be 1984’s A.I.R. by Hiroshi Yoshimura, one of those albums (and artists!) which became massively popular in the 2010s thanks to YouTube algorithms.
Light in the Attic did a fantastic compilation on the genre a couple of years ago, which included Akira Ito’s sublime ‘Praying For Mother/Earth Part 1’. This was taken from the cult LP Prayers, one of the four (!) albums Ito released in 1986 on the Green & Water label which he specially founded to promote a series of releases (entitled Music For Inochi aka “Music For Life”) that would strike a more organic tone, envisioning a series of Japanese Environmental Music records.
The Marine Flowers LP was part of this tetralogy and has now been lovingly remastered and reissued by the always great Glossy Mistakes label.
As we learn from the fascinating liner notes by Diego Olivas (he who runs the great blog Fond/Sond fame), from an interview he conducted with the artist coordinated by our good friend Ken Hidaka (hello mate!), the album was conceived while Ito was on the Micronesian island Palau working on a video which aimed to capture a visual record of the elusive aquatic dugong. True story! Though I’m not sure whether the film crew succeeded on that front, Ito extended his stay and armed with a wide array of analog and digital synthesisers created this Marine Flowers LP dedicated to the turquoise waters and wildlife of Palau.
The whole sequence on the A side of the album especially verges on perfection, from the gorgeous, floating opener of ‘Prologue, Into the Beauty’ to the blissful subaquatic wonders of ‘W.A.T.E.R.’ (featuring a heavenly violin melody from Takashi Toyoda) to the cosmic ambient of ‘Dancing Spirits’ and closing on the majestic ‘Essence of Beauty’. Music For Inochi indeed.
Harari – Ruraro Happiness (Matsuli Music)
Over the past few years, the fantastic SA based label Matsuli Music has been digging deep in the rich vaults of the country’s black music heritage, offering high quality reissues of cult and hard to find SA grooves from the past. After such highlights as Black Disco’s Night Express, Okay Temiz and Johnny Dyani’s Witchdoctor’s Son, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s Genes and Spirits, Bheki Mseleku’s Celebration or The Ibrahim Khalil Shihab Quintet’s Spring comes Harari’s first LP under this name, Rufaro Happiness, a bona fide Afro-psychedelic funk rock jewel from 1976.
“In Harari we rediscovered our African-ness, the infectious rhythms and music of the continent. We came back home inspired! We were overhauling ourselves into dashiki-clad musicians who were Black Power saluting and so on” says Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, one of the band’s co-founders and main composers.”
(Read full review here)
Khan Jamal – Infinity (Jazz Room)
Infinity is an outstanding modal and spiritual jazz album by American vibraphone and marimba player Khan Jamal (who sadly passed away in 2021). Originally released in 1984 on his own Jambrio label, the album was long considered a holy grail amongst rare jazz collectors and become impossibly hard to find. It was a joy to finally see this reissued by Jazz Room Records, the exciting new label run by legendary DJ and producer Paul Murphy.
The album is mostly known for the hypnotic, Coltrane-inspired ‘The Known Unknown’, on which Jamal and pianist Bernard Sammul interact majestically up and down their keyboards, a jazz dance monster which was huge on the acid jazz scene of the 1990s (of which Murphy was one the key DJs) and had been featured on a few comps before. The whole album however remained largely undiscovered, and it’s a gem (read full review here)!
Hank Jones meets Cheick-Tidiane Seck and the Mandinkas – Sarala (Decca Records, France)
The great American jazz pianist Hank Jones, (who passed away in 2010), brother of Elvin, has a plethora of albums under his name and was a sideman on countless others, including some of my favourite jazz tracks like George Benson’s seminal ‘Shape Of Things To Come’, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ (a huge favourite of mine), or Gene Ammons’ ‘Ca’Purange (Jungle Soul)’.
In 1993, aged 75, Jones wanted to go back to his roots and record an album of West African music and was introduced to the great Malian keyboard player, long time Super Rail Band member and Jimmy Smith disciple Cheick Tidiane Seck. The pair clicked instantly and Seck put together a band with some of the finest musicians from Mali (the Mandikas), as well as a bespoke Mandigo repertoire for an American audience. He arranged, produced and composed half of the tracks on the set, while also playing the Hammond B-3 organ and percussion.
The recording sessions took place in Paris and the album was released in 1995 (on CD only) on the Gitanes Jazz Productions label. It was a big success in Mali and received critical acclaim from the likes of Oumou Sangaré or Toumani Diabaté. Some twenty five plus years later it’s a joy to see Sarala for the first time vinyl edition, though it has to be said the production of this reissue is really poor: no liner notes, no additional pictures or context given, blank inner sleeves… a bit of a botched project sadly, but at least the music speaks for itself.
Rather than a leader, Jones plays throughout the set like a guest of honour, blending in with the balafon, guitar, kora and percussion rather than taking centre stage. ‘Sarala’, the track which gives its name to the album and one of the two songs of the set featuring Seck on lead vocals, is a modern take on a traditional Bambara melody, on which the band gives thanks and praises for the opportunity to play with the jazz giant: “sarala”, like “saravah” in Brazilian, must be listened to as salvation, blessing.
Seck’s groovy touch on the organ shines on tracks like ‘Komidiara’ or the deep instrumental cuts ‘Fantagué’ and ‘Hank Miri’. The interaction between the pianist and keyboardist is at its best on the magnificent ‘Manigafoly‘ as well as on ‘Mâké’ (which features the great Mamani Keita on vocals), while French-Tunisian singer Amina makes an unexpected an much welcome guest appearance on the stunning ‘Walidi Ya.
Sarala is the perfect meeting between two musicians at the top of their game, one African American native and his Mandigo cousin, born generations and ocean apart, whose common language, the blues, resulted in an album of intense spiritual beauty.
Laraaji – Flow Goes The Universe (All Saints Records)
Listening to Laraaji’s heavenly music is always a deep experience, one where the notions of space and time disappear and the listener is drawn into a meditative, contemplative state in which the Here and Now is everything.
“This music that I am hearing, fills up all space and speaks through the conscious awareness to allow it to know that eternity is now – the eternal present time”
The 25 minutes of ‘Being Here’ fully embody this notion of living in the moment, in a zen inhale/exhale state. Infinite music with a real sense of cosmic alignment
Flow Goes the Universe is the first-time vinyl pressing of Laraaji’s much-loved 1992 album, edited from several concerts and studio performances around the globe.
The spectacular ‘A Cave in England’ for instance uses the recording of the echoing, flowing space of a cave in the Lake district, while on the haunting ‘In Continuum’, Laraaji plays his customary zither played with cello bows.
One can only prepare the listening space accordingly, free of any other sensory distraction, in order to achieve the “transformative power of an immersionary sound hearing experience”.
This vinyl edition was cut as a double album by Stefan Betke (aka Pole) for maximum fidelity, and includes a fascinating interview with Laaraji on the topics of trance states, higher dimensions and sonic mind science. What’s not to like!
Teddy Lasry – Funky Ghost 1975-1987 (Hot Mule)
What a superb compilation this is, a retrospective dedicated to the cult French musician and composer Teddy Lasry. His life was immersed in music from an early age (there’s a cool picture in the liner notes of his parents playing crystal organs in the early 60s) which led Teddy to quickly become multi instrumentalist, learning the piano, the clarinet, saxophone and all sorts of synthesizers. After stints with both the pioneer French experimental band Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet and the super prog group Magma, Lasry decided to go his own way, recording 20+ albums between 1971 and 1987.
It must arguably have been quite a mission to compile from such a deep discography, but the eight tracks that made the final cut, on top of being special and unique in their own rights, are perfectly sequenced and hence have a fantastic story to tell (something which is not always easily achieved on a compilation).
We start (just waking up) in the best of fashion with the tropical bliss of ‘Raising Sun On Bali’, before embarking on a cosmic dance tour with all shades of funk and tracks like ‘Blue Theme’ (a slow jazz funk jam a la Ronald Snijders) and ‘Chamonix’ (a track he made with Claude Perraudin on their joint 1976 album Racing and which reminds me both of my friend and fellow cosmic DJ Pol Valls and of the all time fave ‘Mammagama’ cut by Alan Parsons Project).
‘Krazy Kat’ is a really playful and funky cosmic synth interlude, reminiscing of Hancock’s electronic wizardries circa ‘Nobu’, which leads up to the impossibly cool and funky (sic) ‘Funky Ghost’ from 1983 (echoing what Paul McCartney did with ‘Check My Machine’), then onto the dreamy Balearic disco of ‘Back to Amazonia’, before landing back… in space with the magnificent ‘Birds of Space’ (from the 1976 E=Mc2 album), an absolute dream of a track which sounds exactly like its what the title says. Synthesized bird songs, marimbas, and a Rhodes solo to die for.
What a trip, what a guy, what a comp. Just wow!
PS: Another great reissue of a 70s French library wizard to look out for is Dominique Andre – Evasion (Born Bad)
Nyssa Musique – Comme Au Moulin (Ici Bientôt)
This reissue is presented by Ici Bientôt, the label run by Boule_o, otherwise known as the owner of the legendary record stand Geminicricket located in the heart of St Ouen fleamarket (just outside of Paris). Their first release from a couple years ago, Nef – Mais Alors!!?..C’est à l’envers, had won my love instantly as much for the incredible (and pretty much unheard of) music as for the packaging and sound quality, and the same goes for Nyssa Musique.
Like Nef, Nyssa Musique were a French band navigating the 1980s underground, while following a unique and original path. It was a time when hybridization between genres was the rule, influences came from everywhere and were mixed in a non-hierarchical manner. Comme Au Moulin throws a bridge between jazz, minimal and world music, both oriental and North African. Think about Midori Tanaka’s work with Mkwaju Ensemble, as well as the experimentations of Don Cherry and Jon Hassell who mixed all kinds of sonic folklores in order to create what became known as fourth world.
Nyssa Musique was the brainchild of Armand Amar (later to become a film soundtrack composer) and the English world percussionist Jon Boswell. They were both familiar with the world of contemporary dance, and this can be heard in this album where rhythm is at the forefront, be it tribal or hypnotic. The closest comparison could perhaps be the music of their contemporary Etienne Schwarcz, who also created percussion heavy music made for contemporary dance.
According to the liner notes, the five members met at a Codona concert, which makes all the sense in the world. Together with Jean-François Roger (on vibes, marimbas and Tibetan bowls), Henri Tournier (flutes) and Renaud Garcia-Fons (double bass) they made this unique, one off album which had mysteriously stayed below the radar until now.
Like Don Cherry’s Organic Music Society, Nyssa Musique would certainly have been labelled spiritual jazz today, but the notable difference was their interest in contemporary classical and repetitive music, as well as the traditional cultures of Southeast Asia, particularly India (‘Vol D’Ibis’) and Indonesia (‘Comme Au Moulin’).
Cosmic world music beyond borders – what a treat.
José Carlos Schwarz & Le Cobiana Djazz – Lua Ki Di Nos (Hot Mule)
With Lua Ki Di Nos (The Moon Is Ours) the ever excellent Hot Mule label has released the first ever compilation to focus on the music of José Carlos Schwarz, a legendary poet, musician and decolonisation hero in his homeland Guinea-Bissau. Together with Super Mama Djombo (perhaps the most popular band of Guinea-Bissau outside of its borders) they gave back a deep sense of cultural identity to Bissau-Guineans at a time (beginning of the 1970s) when the country was broken up into many ethnic groups and at the heart of a war for independence.
By reviving traditional musical genres as gumbé and singing in Guinean Creole, José Carlos Schwarz & his band Cobiana Djazz established an immediate affective bond with their audiences. Through their music and politically engaged spirit of the lyrics, the band played a significant role in shaping the social and political consciousness of the masses, inciting the youth to join the armed struggle.
During his exile in Lisbon, the poet sang about the independence revolution, as on ‘Na Kolonia‘, reflecting the cry of an artist thinking about the fate of his friends back home. The poignant intensity of his singing reminded me of another revolutionary anthem from Cabo Verbe, the island country that lies off the coast of Guinea-Bissau and with whom there is a lot of shared struggles and history (and feel in the music!): ‘Gritul Pobo’ by Kolà, from their Guiné-Bissau album.
The opener ‘Indicativo’ is one of the most uplifting tracks of the compilation and a sure fire dance-floor winner, as well as the psychedelic groove of ‘Picha Kamion’. On ‘Mindjeris Di Panu Pretu, the group pays tribute to the women in the struggle, as well as to the mothers of Guinean soldiers who disappeared during the independence resistance, a song that remains very important in Guinea-Bissau.
Schwarz was also directly involved in resistance activities against the colonial power, participating in urban guerrilla actions or sabotage operations. His song ‘Ke Ki Mininu Na Tchora‘ has also stood the test of time: it tells of the fratricidal split between the independentists and their colonised brothers who supported the colonial authorities.
As we learn from the extensive liner notes, Schwarz’ activities soon led to his imprisonment and torture, and he remained in lockup for about 2 years, between 1972 and 1974. The song ‘Djiu Di Galinha’, named after the island where political prisoners were deported, was recorded with Miriam Makeba on his first and only solo album (which was released posthumously) and testifies to his two-year experience behind bars.
The process of decolonisation, in the wake of the Portuguese revolution of 25 April 1974, led to the recognition, during the same year, of the sovereign nation of Guinea-Bissau. Schwarz played an important part in the transition to the democratic regime, profiting from his popularity as an artist. Soon though his criticism became too much for the political elite, and he was assigned to the embassy in Havana. Tragically his plane crashed on arrival at Cuba’s José Martí International Airport (most likely ‘helped’ by the CIA), on May 27th 1977, and José Carlos Schwarz met an untimely death at the age of 27. Much respect to Hot Mule for such a well crafted reissue (both packaging and sound are splendid) and for reviving the legacy of such an important artist.
Mario Rui Silva – Stories From Another Time (Time Capsule)
The first time I heard Mario Rui Silva was when my good friend Sam Jacob played Kazum-zum-zum during a fundraising radio show we did during the first lockdown (to help out the Chats Palace venue. Were they grateful for this? That’s another story… ). The track sounded impossibly fresh and beautiful and was the highlight of night that lasted about 10 hours or so. Sam played another track – also excellent – by Rui Silva on that night, which really stroke me too as super special. I had never heard of the artist before and upon hearing he was from Angola, a country whose music I didn’t associate with that of Mario Rui, I was rightfully intrigued.
A few months later Sam managed to track down Mario Rui in Paris and curate this incredible compilation for Time Capsule. Mario’s music is unbelievably nice and eclectic, as he digs into everything from the traditional folk genres of his country to Brazilian MPB (the maestro Caetano Veloso often comes to mind) to modern fusions of his own. Altogether minimal and complex in a quietly uplifting way. There is a great on point review by Ban Ban Ton Ton’s Dr Rob which you can read here.
Towards the end of the summer TC’s boss Kay Suzuki managed to bring Mario (who hadn’t played for years) over to the UK alongside two of his ex bandmates for a couple of impromptu gigs which was an absolute joy to witness.
Niko Tzoukmanis – Hope is the Sister of Despair (Libreville)
The ears behind Libreville Records (hello Ben!) have proven once again their impeccable taste with the label’s sixth release, which reached essential status right away. From the majestic Afro fusion of Eko Kuango, via the neo classical bliss of Albert Alan Owen (both featured highly on my previous years’ best of), to the post rave electronic soundscapes of Nico Tzoukmanis, the main trait-d’union of the label is, simply, beauty.
Hope Is The Sister Of Despair, was first self released in 2013 on CD only, and now issued for the first time on vinyl with four previously unreleased tracks. Tzoukmanis’ original manifesto to produce “melodic and moving ambient music inspired by Detroit techno and 90s UK electronica” is pretty much what you get here. This is synthesizer and sequencer based electronic music with wide influences, ranging from the intergalactic excursions of Tangerine Dream and the Cosmic Jokers of the 70s “Berlin School” to ambient Detroit techno, post rave bliss (‘Floating Free’, ‘Twinkle’) and the golden days of Warp’s Artificial Intelligence series (especially Boards Of Canada on the magnificent ‘Disorder’).
Melodic, pulsing, futuristic (the stunning ‘Free Hugs’ is all that) – this is emotional, late night / early morning post club music for the daydreamers, which fits perfectly with the current wave of nostalgia for the dreamy moods and comforting feeling of 90s techno (think Aphex Twin circa ‘Analogue Bubblebath‘) which has been coming back to the fore of late.
’24 Hours’ could have been called ‘Lost in Space’ (a track from the original CD which was omitted on the reissue) as it sounds like the perfect last track at the end of rave circa Borealis ’95 or (let us dream) Houghton ’22. As always with Libreville the production is top class, wide open sound and classy packaging. Full points.
V/A: Heisei No Oto (Japanese Left-Field Pop From The CD Age, 1989-1996) (Music From Memory)
I just love those compilations which manage to dig out relatively unknown and disparate tracks and create something coherent out of a particular feeling or mood rather than a specific music genre. The always on top MFM label ran by Jaimie Tiller and Take are usually pretty good at that (see John Gomez’s Outro Tempo comps or the Virtual Dreams one on an ambient house tip).
The compilation has been expertly curated by the revered Osaka diggers Eiji Taniguchi and Norio Sato, who, while delving into home-grown ambient, jazz, new wave and pop records, stumbled onto a world of visionary music released almost exclusively on CD, often driven by synthesizers or drum computers, that broke beyond the typical confines of their genres.
Heisei No Oto refers to the sound of the Heisei era, which began in 1989 and corresponds to the reign of Emperor Akihito until his abdication in 2019. And, although compact discs were first introduced seven years earlier it wasn’t until 1989 that, beyond dance music labels, CDs became the exclusive format for major and independent labels in Japan and most of the world.
The track list is filled with delights, cosmic pop oddities which most of us would never have heard of (the vast majority of diggers are into vinyls and rarely look into the CD racks), like ‘Miko‘ by Fumihiro Murakami or ‘Yeelen’ by Love, Peace and Trance (one of the many side projects of Haruomi Hosono, this time alongside Miyako Koda of Dip in the Pool), a track which interestingly was inspired by the Souleymane Cissé movie of the same name.
The comp also features the already well known but always incredible ‘Pi Po Pa’ by the pop star Yosui Inoue, ‘Stop Me’ by Tadahiko Yokogawa, as well as ‘L’ete’, a stunning balearic pop number (or rather walearic I should say) from Ichiko Hashimoto, one half of Colored Music.
Further on, ‘Phlanged Vortex’ by Eiki Nonaka (of Interior fame) is yet another treat as is the end of the night floater ‘Ink‘ by Kina Tomoko (produced and written by Yasuaki Shimizu and Mariah, no less). I could go on for a while as all the tracks feature on the comp are really special in their own way.
One more (!): Dream Dolphin’s ‘Take No Michi’
Big up to the compilers and everyone at MFM for such a fantastic and fascinating compilation!
V/A – La Ola Interior (Spanish Ambient & Acid Exoticism in Spain 1983-90) (Les Disques Bongo Joe)
This fantastic collection of tunes covering the ambient side of Spanish electronic music produced in the 80s was a revelation to me, and perhaps the most unlikely surprise of the year. It must have been such a labour of love to dig out, curate and put together this treasure of a compilation, a testament to how important and essential independent archival labels with a vision can be to our culture.
Of the artists presents on the comp I only knew Finis Africae, Luis Delgado and Suso Saiz (all big favourites); the rest are all new to me and many have been dug out from albums or singles released on cassette tapes only. All these musicians came “from various horizons but shared the desire to create an immersive soundscape and to combine electronic music with non-Western musical traditions.”
Most interestingly, as we learned from Loic Diaz Ronda’s excellent liner notes, these artists’ explorations are “all about a dreamed exoticism, a motionless journey, because most of these musicians never travelled to the countries whose culture, language and sounds they revere.”
“The result is a hybrid music, refined and redesigned, neither Western nor extra-Occidental, with a real taste for merging opposites, that we call Acid Exoticism because of its everlasting search for trance or contemplation.”
If those words are not enough to seduce you, stop everything you’re doing and just listen to these two tracks below. Loud.
Just wow! The whole comp is filled with cosmic delights across four sides of wax. Five stars and more.
Vis-A-Vis – Obi Agye Me Dofo (We Are Busy Bodies)
Here’s an essential reissue of the cult album by Ghana’s Vis-A-Vis, a bona fide psychedelic highlife masterpiece. Recorded in 1977 at the height of the golden era of Ghana’s record industry, a time when highlife rhythms were mixed with jazz and Afrobeat, Obi Agye Me Dofo is known as Vis-A-Vis’ masterpiece album out of a deep discography filled with many a diamonds. In terms of Afro cosmic interstellar sounds, this hardly gets any better than this.
Vis-A-Vis were the band behind K Frimpong, who became one of Ghana’s most popular stars of the 1970s thanks notably to the iconic, all time classic ‘Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu‘ (recorded with Cubano Fiestas but featuring mostly members of Vis-A-Vis) – a staple with Abdul Forsyth at Plastic People’s Balance night in the early 00s, and arguably one of the best track ever recorded in history (!). On Obi Agye Me Dofo Isaac Yeboah takes K Frimpong’s place on lead vocals, but the rest of the line up is pretty much the same, with Sammy Cropper on guitar, Slim Manu on bass, Gybson ‘Shaolin Kung-Fu’ Papra on drums, Kofi Abrokwa on saxophone and Tommy Doziz on synths.
The title track Obi Agye Me Dofo, is very much in the same mould of K Frimpong’s hits, with its hypnotic Afrobeat groove, haunting vocals, killer horns, cosmic synth keys and a wandering guitar solo. Nothing short of a masterclass of Afro psychedelia.
Any album would be a must have on the strength of this track alone, but here we have another four tracks hovering along similar height. Check the crazy synth work on the Afro funk cut ‘Kankyema’ for instance, as well as on the driving groove of ‘Gyae Su’.
Both the title track and the album had been reissued already on Soundway (on the cult box set Ghana Special ) and Continental respectively, but these are long out of prints and this new reissue is the best way to own this slice of pure gold from the golden age of Ghanaian music!
VS Quartet – A Pou Zot… (Digger’s Digest)
Last but definetely not least comes A Pou Zot (“For You Guys” in Creole), the first album featuring bassist Victor Sabas as leader of his own quartet. It was originally released in 1986 as part of an anonymous series created to group French releases with no label branding. So far so obscure, and no surprise if you hadn’t heard about its existence before. Thankfully some of the hardcore diggers and jazz lovers did hear it though, and especially Julian Achard who has now reissued the LP in its full glory on his ever reliable Digger’s Digest label.
Hailing from French Guiana, Victor Sabas formed the quartet in Paris with the legendary Martinican pianist Mario Canonge, Guadeloupean drummer Serge Marne (who by then had played with the likes of Roland Louis, Barney Wilen, Abel Lima, West African Cosmos and Jobby Valente), and Brazilian percussionist Dosty Dos Santos (of Os Maracatu fame). After spending years honing their sound, they recorded their first and unique album in just six hours (!), an incredible feat that is even more spectacular given the depth and synergy on display.
The set kicks off with ‘Mr J.C.’, a splendid homage to Coltrane in his modal era, before sliding nicely into the rootsier ‘Tradition’ and its splendid fusion of Afro-Latin rhythms and influences. Already, this is Caribbean jazz at its very best – and we haven’t reached the B side yet. Here we first get to groove to ‘FA’, an uplifting New Orleans-meet- the-Caribbean number composed by Allen Hoist, an American musician based in France at the time, before being presented with the marvellous title track ‘A Pou Zot’. Already a bit of a classic since its inclusion on the Freedom Jazz France comp from a few years back (compiled by Achard), the track is the centrepiece of the set, with the quartet at the very top of its magical powers, evolving effortlessly between modal, spiritual and Caribbean jazz.
A jazz dance masterpiece and bona fide BATB classic, which should by no means eclipse the closing track ‘Feliz’, a heavenly cosmic ballad on which Hoist carries the theme on the saxophone, while Dos Santos takes over from Canonge on piano and literally steals the show, building up to an incredible finale. The sound on this reissue is warm and dynamic, giving full justice to the depth and subtleties of this deep jazz “holy grail.” Truly unmissable.
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On top of all this, there were also a bunch of definite reissues of classic, seminal jazz albums, which I won’t be reviewing as they have been (well) written about at great lengths already, starting with the stunning boxset of Sun Ra’s – Lanquidity, arguably the ultimate masterpiece from the cosmic wanderer, and definitely his funkiest, grooviest and most psychedelic achievement (which is saying something). Big up Strut for this brilliant reissue which sounds incredible at 45rpm (!). I sold my previous copy of the album and swapped it for this one.
“You cannot harness this music, I’m dealing with the omniverse.” (Sun Ra)
The great We Want Sounds label has also put out a deluxe reissue of the landmark civil rights album The Loud Minority by Franck Foster, which was remastered from the original tapes and includes a 20 page booklet featuring an essay by Kevin Le Gendre and an exclusive interview of Cecil and Dee Dee Bridgewater by Paul Bowler. Essential!
The legendary jazz-funk masterpiece ‘Cat’ by trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki has also received the definite reissue treatment, sourced from the original masters and mastered at half speed for full audiophile sound. This is the perfect record to make your home system sing and justify your rent phono stage upgrade (!).
Finally, Real Gone Music have been on a mission to reissue some of the seminal Black Jazz Records catalogue, including Doug Carn and Jean Carn, Calvin Keys, Rudolph Johnson, Gene Russell, Chester Thompson. Nothing spectacular in terms of productions, but the sound is quite decent and most of these titles are near impossible to find in original pressings so if you want to own any of these on vinyl it really is a no brainer.
Time is running out indeed and that’ll be 2021 wrapped out for now.