DOWNTEMPO MUSIC-SOME OF ITS FINEST MOMENTS.
DOWNTEMPO MUSIC-SOME OF ITS FINEST MOMENTS.
For some time, I have been planning a retrospective of downtempo music. Immediately, I hear you say downtempo music, what is that? Downtempo music is the way I describe what many people would call chill-out music. I have chosen to use the term downtempo music because for a while, this style of music was hijacked, often by the major record labels, who sensing an easy way to make money, released all sorts of dreadful compilations with chill-out in the title. This lead to a multitude of terrible compilations hit the market, making many people turn their back on this style of music, disgusted by the inferior quality of many of the releases. What did not help, was certain established compilations started releasing poorer quality installments of previously popular series’. Many people will recognize the guilty parties, some of whom are still persisting with these third rate releases. This lead to this genre of music becoming much less popular, and some people treated the genre with almost contempt. That was a shame, as during the “golden age” of this music, some wonderful music was released. Hopefully, this review will reacquaint people with some of these wonderful releases, and help separate the wheat from the chaff.
In this review, I will look back at some of the best compilations that were released in what I would call the “golden age” of downtempo music. I have picked a wide range of releases, from a wide variety of labels, some you will have heard of, some you will not be familiar with.
BLUE LIGHT ONE-AN UPSTAIRS RECORDINGS COMPILATION.
The first album that I have chosen to include in this review is Blue Light One-An Upstairs Recordings Compilation. This compilation was released in 2002, and features the artists who record for Upstairs Recordings. There are twelve tracks of wonderful laidback, downtempo grooves on this album, including tracks by Telefuzz, Earball The Wiliam Casion Experience and Ed Swanz. Previously, I reviewed Telefuzz’s album Sleep, so you will be familiar with their sound. In case you are unfamiliar with the other artists, I will now choose four of the albums best tracks.
Red Lights by Matt Voogan starts with a beautiful acoustic guitar solo, and then goes on to feature some great rhythms. The track is faster than some on the album, but meanders along, repeating and highlighting, some wonderfully programmed synthesizers and drums. Effects, including delay, are used sparingly, to slow the track down, or highlight a sound or instrument. Overall, a well constructed, and produced track.
Salamino by Miguel Graca, is slower than Voogan’s track. It has a different sound, much more minimalist, using synthesizers and drums. A female vocal drifts in and out of the sound, and sits quite far back in the mix. The track has a drum and bass feel to it. I like the constant repetition of sounds, within the track, it works well, and you find yourself waiting expectantly, for the familiar sounds to return, and tantalize your ears again. Graca has produced one of the albums strongest tracks, one that still sounds fresh nearly ten years on.
The Real Funicello by The Wiliam Casion Experience, has long been one of my favorite tracks on this album. This track is slower, and features a fuller, more varied sound. In the track, effects and samples are used effectively, they fill the sound, popping up all through the track, assailing your sense, taking them in a journey through a psychedelic soundscape. This is easily the standout track on Blue Light One.
Isla De La Piedra by Earball, is a slightly faster track, and one that has many layers. During the track, so much happens, you hear sounds and samples a plenty. At the start, you will hear The Orb influencing the sound, thereafter, the sound is very much unique. Samples cut in and out, effects transform and reenergize the sound, and towards the end a female vocalist sings beautifully, over and around the rest of the sounds and samples. Earball has contributed a great track to this compilation, one that I never tire of hearing.
Blue Light One is an album that is well worth buying. It offers a much different sound to many of the albums that were coming out in 2002. By then the standard of quality of downtempo music was at a low. This release restored my belief that there were still artists out there, willing to push musical boundaries, and produce new and quality music. Buy this album, and it will take you on an a downtempo and almost, psychedelic journey, one which you will allow you to hear and experience a multitude of intoxicating wonderful music. Standout Tracks: Red Lights by Matt Voogan, Salamino by Miguel Graca, The Real Funicello by The Wiliam Casion Experience and Isla De La Piedra by Earball.
BLUE LIGHT ONE-AN UPSTAIRS RECORDINGS COMPILATION.
HIGHWAY AND LANDSCAPE.
Highway and Landscape is a two disc set which was released in 1997 on Distance Records. This was the first of three Highway and Landscape compilations. It features a number of artists that you will struggle to find on other similar compilations. That is a shame, because there is some wonderful music on the two discs. The tracks were selected by Oliver Velay and Eric Pajot and contains tracks from a number of labels including T:me Recordings, Hardkiss, Reflective and R&S. There are some well known and lesser know artists on this album, including Dave Angel and John Beltran as well as T-Tauri and Single Cell Orchestra. I will choose two of the best tracks from each disc.
Curiosity (What It Is) by Molasses is one of the tracks I have chosen from the first disc. The track begins with drum and bass, and the drum sound is like something you would find on a blaxploitation album, but slowed down, way down. Behind the drum sits the bass which is slow and spacious. Then the track opens out, into a bright and breezy track, one which would be a lovely accompaniment to any Balearic sunset. Throughout the track, the bass makes an appearance, repeating the same notes. Too quickly, this great is over. It lasts just under three minutes. However, it is three minutes of your life well spent.
Teleport To Origin by Valleyman is the second track from disc one I have chosen. Again this is a slower track. It is an atmospheric soundscape, with an almost space age feel to it. I can imagine this accompanying a sci-fi film. It makes you think of space, and traveling towards unexplored planets. The track features numerous sounds, samples and instruments. There is a contrast between the main part of the track with slowly meanders, and the drum beat which overrides it. What really reinforces the feeling of space, is the vocal samples, which float in and out of the track, a couple of times. There use is rationed, and when used sparingly, as here, is extremely effective. This is easily the best track on this disc.
Adjustable by Being is my first choice of track to feature from disc two. This is a slightly quicker track than the two tracks from the first disc. The track has a long and slow build up, the sound is not too busy or full. Sounds repeat, then disappear, only to reappear, and the tempo remains constant. It is a pleasant track to listen to, it does not assault your senses with an arsenal of sounds and samples. Quite the opposite, the constant repetition, gently soothes and massages your soul, its familiarity like a comfort. Being have produced a great track, one that I hope you too, will enjoy as much as I do.
Amazing Discoveries by Move D is a similar tempo to Adjustable by Being. It has an atmospheric, almost futuristic feel to it. The music pulsates throughout, behind the constancy of the drums and keyboards. Chords, samples and drumbeats repeat consistently, highlighting and featuring, dramatic peaks in the music. There is both darkness and light within the track, sometimes both at the same time. It is track that offers a different type of downtempo music, one that is much more sophisticated than on many other albums, because of the complex nature of the sound.
If you have never heard this album, and whether you are someone who loves downtempo music, or someone who has never heard it before, this album is well worth buying. Highway and Landscape, when it came featured a totally different type of music. The music was much more experimental in nature, and sounded fresh, new and vibrant. By 1997, many “chill-out” albums were being churned out, often featuring the same artists. This offered something new, something that stimulated and refreshed me. At the time, I hope that there would be further releases, thankfully there were, two further volumes were issued, and they were every bit as good, if not better. Standout Tracks: Curiosity (What It Is) by Molasses, Teleport To Origin by Valleyman, Adjustable by Being and Amazing Discoveries by Move D.
HIGHWAY AND LANDSCAPE.
HIGHWAY AND LANDSCAPE 3.
Highway and Landscape 3, was the final installment in what was a short lived, yet brilliant series. Why it was the last volume, puzzles me, because here was their strongest release in the series, featuring some of the fantastic tracks that you will struggle to equal. This third volume was selected by Jean-Yves Leloup, who has handled the job with aplomb. He describes the tracks as a collection of deep beats and cinematic breaks. Like the first volume, this was a two disc set, therefore, I will choose the two best tracks from each disc.
Tropiq by I:Cube is my first choice from disc one. The track starts quietly, and like a volcano, sometimes, things are emitted from it. Here the track rambles along keeping the same tempo, and rhythm, which repeats beautifully. Then, sometimes, a new sound suddenly, appears in the mix. This is immediately noticeable, as by now, you are intimately aware of the track, due to the clever use of repetition. I:Cube have produced a track that is well structured and produced, that is one of the best on this album, never mind this disc.
The Blazing Water by Shantel, is the other track I have chosen from disc one. This track starts quietly, and gently and slowly unfolds. At the start samples and a vocal dominate, then the drum beat sits firmly at the front of the track. Behind the drums, sits vocals, a trumpet and synthesizers. All, however, have their moment in the sun, as they take turns to dominate the track, sitting proudly at the front of the mix. After four minutes, a spoken word sample can be heard, this changes and freshens things. I found myself awaiting its return. Thankfully it did, but only at the end of the track. Maybe limiting its use was wise, as sometimes they are overused. This is a fantastic track, one that I cannot fault, and one I love to hear.
My first choice from disc two Mind Food by PCS. This track puts me in mind of a scene from a 1960s spy movie. The track is moody, atmospheric, yet not dark. There is a lightness to the track, this is due to the mix of instruments used. They are played in a restrained way, and feature strings, a bass and drums. Sounds weave into, and out off the track. Overall, it is a great track, with a real cinematic feel to it. All we need now, is someone to make a movie to accompany the track.
My final selection from this album is Week End A Brives (Goo Remix) by Superbonbon. This track features an almost classical influence in places, yet the crunching drum beat is almost what you would expect from an army marching into battle. However, listen behind the drumbeats and you will hear much more. Numerous spoken word samples, scratches and strings will be amongst what you will hear. Although the drum beat is prominent and loud, it does not spoil the track. What it does is provide variety, as many of the drum beats on downtempo tracks sound very similar. This is an interesting and innovative track, one that is well worth investigating.
Highway and Landscape 3 has always been one of my favorite downtempo albums. I remember the first time I put this on after buying this album I was blown away. It was so innovative and pioneering, so very different from what was being released in 2002. I was sorry that no further volumes of Highway and Landscape were released, it was one of the best series of compilations about. While this series ended too soon, certain other compilers never knew when enough was enough, and kept churning third rate volumes of weak wannabe downtempo music. So if you never heard this album when it was released, I suggest that this weekend you visit your local record shop and try to find this album. I can assure you will not be disappointed, and will then seek out volumes one and two, as within the three volumes is some brilliant music. Standout Tracks: Tropiq by I:Cube, The Blazing Water by Shantel, Mind Food by PCS and Week End A Brives (Goo Remix) by Superbonbon.
HIGHWAY AND LANDSCAPE 3.
CAFE DEL MAR VOLUMEN UNO.
Cafe Del Mar was one of the first downtempo compilation series’ to be released. This was the series that many other record companies tried to imitate, once they saw how successful Cafe Del Mar was, and how many albums that were sold each year. What was special about this series was how eclectic the choice of music on these albums were. You could find a jazz track by Stan Getz, a remix of a John Martyn track or an old Penguin Cafe Orchestra track. For me, that was part of the beauty of the series. You never knew what you would find on the volume. After nine volumes, the series lost something for me. There was never the same quality or eclecticism on the albums. However, that still leaves some wonderful music for you to discover.
The Story of Light by William Orbit is the first track I will feature from the album. This track builds up slowly, taking over a minute to do so. After a minute and a half, the track opens up to feature a vocal accompanied by a variety of instruments, and samples. The track has a joyous feel and sound. One can imagine it going down well beneath the Iberian sunset. When you hear the track, it makes me shudder when I realize how long ago it was originally released. Although released back in 1994, the track still sounds as fresh today, as it did back then.
Smokebelch II by Sabres of Paradise has a totally different feel and sound to it. Whereas, Orbit’s track was uplifting, this track has a much more subdued sound. It gently, and slowly meanders along, repeating and revisiting the same sounds and ideas, but in doing so demonstrate and highlight the track’s quality and beauty. The tempo is almost unchanged throughout, and the same sounds appear and reappear. Regardless of the times I have heard this track, I still enjoy hearing it again, it is like being visited by an old friend, one who, even though you have seen many times, you always enjoy seeing again.
My next choice is Sundance by Sun Electric. The track opens with a cloud of thunder and vocal samples and drum beats. Thereafter, what follows is vocal accompanied by drum beats, percussion, samples and the occasional peal of thunder. It is one of these tracks that, still sounds as good as the first time you heard it. The track has a a quality and depth that many other tracks of this nature lack. This is why the track still sounds as fresh eighteen years on.
My final choice from the album is Estelle by A Man Called Adam. This is one of the slowest tracks on the album, and is, in my opinion, easily one of the best. It has the most beautiful and sweetest vocal on the track. It is given centre-stage, and everything else, is merely an accompaniment. This includes a woodwind instrument, percussion, piano solo and several spoken word samples that are used liberally within the track. Estelle is one those tracks, many people tried to imitate, but failed to do so. A great track, from a great album.
Cafe Del Mar Volumen Uno was the first in a long running series. It was the beginning of a huge success story, one that many people embraced. Each year many people looked forward to the Cafe Del Mar new release. Having spent a long time revisiting downtempo albums, including these albums, I chose this volume as one of the best. From the first track, to the last track, each is of the highest quality. There are releases from some of the great and good of electronic and dance music. This allows the new listener to experience some wonderful music, from some wonderful artists. If you have never heard this album, or any of the other albums in the series, this is a good starting point. Should you enjoy this album, I would advise you try the first eight volumes, and then tread carefully. Standout Tracks: The Story of Light by William Orbit, Smokebelch II by Sabres of Paradise, Sundance by Sun Electric and Estelle by A Man Called Adam.
CAFE DEL MAR VOLUMEN UNO.
CAFE DEL MAR VOLUMEN CUATRO.
As the Cafe Del Mar series was so influential, and contain so much good music, I have decided to include two of their compilations. This volume was the fourth in the series, and was released in 1997. Like the three previous volumes, volume four contained some wonderful, eclectic music.
The first song I have chosen to feature is Sunshine’s Better (Talvin Singh Mix) by John Martyn. Unlike many of the songs on the Cafe Del Mar series, this track is sung by an artist better known for other genres of music. Martyn is better known for rock, folk and blues song. Here Talvin Singh has taken one of Martyn’s tracks and stripped the track back, and overlaid some drum beats to make a great track. He brings out the warmth and beauty in Martyn’s voice. This also made a further generation aware of John Martyn’s wonderful music. This track really works, because of the minimalist sound of the track. In my experience, these remixes can be either be very effective, or absolutely dire. Thankfully this is the former, rather than the latter.
Return Journey by Voices of Kwahn opens with the sound of waves gently lapping against the beach. Then the track features a female vocal accompanied by drum beats, synthesizers, samples and a multitude of noises which filter towards the surface, sometimes just coming to your attention, then as quickly, disappearing. The whole effect is exultant, uplifting and joyous. This is easily, the album’s best track, as it will take something extra special, to surpass Return Journey.
The final track I have chosen is Troubled Girl by Karen Ramirez. This track was from her album Troubled Dreams. It has a lovely Latin feel to the track, and Ramirez sings the song really well. Troubled Girl makes you think of warm days, on golden sandy beaches, in some exotic and exciting location. Although the track is not a traditional downtempo track, it fits in well with the compiler’s eclectic selection policy. It is a good track, one that you will enjoy hearing, and one that will always lift your mood.
Place De La Concorde by Fila Brazillia is a very laid back, minimalist sounding track. Without much anything much happening, this track is both, intriguing and effective. The same instruments and samples are used to constantly repeat the same rhythms. However, these rhythms are so catchy and outstanding that you don’t mind hearing them time after time. Fila Brazillia have produced a great track full of catch hooks and great rhythms, that is one of the highlights of the album.
Cafe Del Mar Volumen Cuatro, was yet another great compilation in this series. Like volume one that I reviewed earlier in this article, there are no poor tracks on the album. One difference is that the choice of music is much more eclectic. This is a good thing, as that was much more representative of the chill-out sets played by djs when the genre was in its infancy. Like the first volume, this is a good starting point to a newcomer to Cafe Del Mar or downtempo music. Instead of buying either volumes uno or cuatro, why not buy them both. If you decide to do that, you will find that you will be able to by volumes one and two, on one two disc set. It is also the case with the first eight volumes. This allows you to buy the first eight volumes for the price of four albums. Should you do that, you are in for a treat. Enjoy. Standout Tracks: Sunshine’s Better (Talvin Singh Mix), by John Martyn, Return Journey by Voices of Kwahn, Place De La Concorde by Fila Brazillia and Troubled Girl by Karen Ramirez.
CAFE DEL MAR VOLUMEN CUATRO.
Serve Chilled was released in 1999 on the Hed Kandi label, and was the brainchild of compiler Mark Doyle. On this album he collected together some of the best downtempo releases of the time, and put twenty-eight of the best on this two disc set. Looking back, this compilation was new and exciting at the time. Everything about the album, was different from other similar releases. This was because of the stunning artwork, the packaging and not forgetting, the great tracks that are to be found on Serve Chilled. For a few years, this became a release to anticipate. That lasted for a while, and then something happened, it lost its freshness, some of the tracks did not have the same quality, and like many people, I lost interest in the series, and the label. Part of the problem was, they started releasing far too many albums, covering too many styles of dance and electronic music, and sadly, quality control suffered. However, for a few short years, this was a wonderful series, one that many people enjoyed, and still treasure.
The first track from disc one I have chosen to feature is Moon Sequence by Herbaliser. Moon Sequence is true downtempo track, it is slow, spacey, and atmospheric with a capital A. So realistic, is the track, that you feel as it you are beside Herbaliser in a rocket, embarking on some sort of trip! The song features a great arrangement, the spoken word samples and slow drum beats are the mainstay of the track. Other sounds join, and compliment this sound, resulting in, a truly great track.
The Beat Experience by Pepe Deluxe is the second track I have chosen to feature on this disc. Like Herbaliser’s track, this track features a spoken word sample. This also has a space-age feel to it. However, in the background, there is a glorious rhythm, one with the catchiest of hooks. This is due to the use of a sample, one from an old disco track. Throughout the track it is present, constantly reminding you of its beauty. There is humor in the track, listen carefully for the sound that it accompanies the rhythm. Clearly, someone is enjoying a vigorous workout, but definitely not one you would get away with in your local gym. Clearly, The Beat Experience is one of the album’s best track’s, one that twelve years still sounds good.
Marching On by Ballistic Brothers is a mid-tempo track, and has a positive feel to it. When you hear the drum arrangement on the track, it has almost a drum and bass feel to it. The track has a jazz influence, which is apparent when you listen to the way the track has been arranged. It is a bright, breezy song, one that slowly unfolds, into a great track. It would fit a downtempo set, or one where the dj is slowly building the pace up, over the course of a long set.
Beyond My Imagination by the Jazz Vandall’s is the final track I have chosen to feature from Served Chilled. This is a slightly faster song than the others I have chosen from this album. It starts at a pedestrian pace, with an ethereal, otherworldly feel, then features both a lovely saxophone solo and beautiful female vocal. From there, the vocal dominates the track, and the drums are spacey, and assisted by some the wonderfully effective sounds and samples joining the mix, all doing their best to ensure the vocal is still centre-stage. The plan works well, the vocal makes the track, is easily the best thing about the track. Don’t get me wrong, everything else plays its part in making this track the standout track on this disc, but with such a great vocal, it deserves all the plaudits it gets.
Having spent time listening again to this album, and many other downtempo albums, I still enjoy Serve Chilled. It is an album that would make a great introduction to downtempo music as it features some of its best known artists. On the album are Nightmares On Wax, Afterlife, Thievery Corporation and The Herballiser. The question I asked myself was has this album stood the test of time well? I believe I can honestly answer yes. This is one of the strongest in the series. Essentially, the first three volumes of this series were the best, after that, I never believed the quality was the same. So if you are wondering whether to buy this album, I would recommend doing so, as long as you stick to the first three volumes you will be fine, after that it is caveat emptor, buyer beware. Standout Tracks: Moon Sequence by Herbaliser, The Beat Experience by Pepe Deluxe, Marching On by Ballistic Brothers and Beyond My Imagination by the Jazz Vandall’s.
Winter Chill was a companion to the Serve Chilled series. It was release a mere four months after Serve Chilled. On this series, the style of music was slightly different, it was a bit darker, yet still contained some wonderful downtempo tracks. On this two disc set, released in 1999 on the Hed Kandi label, you will find twenty-seven great track. Like its cousin Serve Chilled, the best of the Winter Chill series are the first three. Thereafter, the quality was not as good as previously, the compilers seemed to lose their Midas touch. As I stated previously, I blame this on the fact that by now, Hed Kandi were releasing too many different releases and that led to the quality suffering. However, this installment featured some of the period’s best downtempo tracks, and I will now choose the four of the best from the album.
The first track I have chosen from disc one is We Be the Crew by Wiseguys. It starts with a spoken word sample, has a lush quiet start and then the mood quickly changes. We Be the Crew has been heavily influenced by hip hop, and is a totally different style of track from many others on this album. Throughout the track, you will hear many pleasant surprises. Just when you are least expecting it, a sample will appear, or a noise or instrument. It is very effective, because underneath the beats and samples, a lovely melody plays, it repeats throughout, providing a lighter, contrast to the heavier beats. Wiseguys have produced a track that, unlike many others from that period, still sounds really fresh and innovative.
The second track I have chosen is Survival by Nightmares On Wax. They were responsible for popularizing the downtempo sound, and in Carboot Soul and Smokers Delight, two albums I have reviewed previously, have produced some of this genre’s best music. Survival is one of their finest tracks and is from Carboot Soul. The track is full of glorious rhythms and melodies, and hooks galore. The track features keyboards, drums and a fantastic female vocalist. It is a gentle, laid back track, almost the diametric opposite of the Wiseguy’s track. Such is the quality and suitability of their music, you will find Nightmares On Wax tracks on many downtempo albums. Nightmares On Wax’s sound spawned numerous imitators, none capable of matching the original, not be a long chalk.
‘Round Midnight by Nighthawks is the first track from disc two I have chosen to feature. This track is very much jazz influenced. From the title paying homage to Miles Davis seminal album ‘Round About Midnight, to the sultry trumpet solo, to the understated beats that sit behind it, the track is five and a half minutes of musical perfection. The track benefits from a minimalist arrangement, that accentuates the track’s beauty.
My final choice from Winter Chill is Chanel 1 Suite by The Cinematic Orchestra. This track is quicker than the Nighthawks one. It starts gently, and is a track that meanders, repeating its highlights, changing tempo towards the end, heading towards an almost frantic crescendo. It is quite a busy track, featuring drum beats, samples, percussion and an occasional trumpet solo. Unlike the minimalist arrangement on “Round Midnight, this arrangement sees the producers take the opposite direction. However, this works, and works well.
Winter Chill was another good compilation series, in my opinion, one of their finest. The music on this album features some great artists, including Nightmares On Wax, Aim, LTJ Experience, The Cinematic Orchestra and Herballiser. It is one of their strongest releases, and was one that many people enjoyed, and awaited its release in anticipation of hearing some great new tracks. For a while they were pleasantly pleased with what they heard, but like all good things, they come to an end. Although many volumes were released, I felt that after three volumes, these compilations had lost their edge. There were still good tracks on later volumes, but not is many, the quality was lacking somewhat. So if you decide to investigate the Winter Chill series, the first three are the best, then tread carefully. Standout Tracks: We Be the Crew by Wiseguys, Survival by Nightmares On Wax, ‘Round Midnight by Nighthawks and Chanel 1 Suite by The Cinematic Orchestra.
It was quite a difficult choice deciding what albums to include in this review. I have stuck to albums that were released by smaller labels, as the smaller labels were the ones that were releasing the best music. They seemed able to be ahead of the curve, they were aware of musical trends, and were able to provide a showcase for new up-and-coming artists. The bigger labels meanwhile, seemed to just want to cash in on the popularity of a new genre, and used their releases as a platform for their own artists and back catalogue. This resulted in some dire releases, with all sorts of music being given the chill-out tag. If you are looking for these albums, I suggest to check the nearest landfill site to London, as that was the best place for them. Here I have tried to highlight two types of downtempo music. On the Highway and Landscape albums and Blue Light One compilation, the music is much more experimental and groundbreaking. Artists on these albums took the genre in a new direction, and were pioneers, showing what was possible with technology, samples and traditional instruments. The other releases, Cafe Del Mar, Serve Chilled and Winter Chill maybe tended to focus on the more traditional downtempo or chill-out music, only including a few of the more experimental tracks. Regardless of the style of music within these releases, they all have one thing in common, and that is they all feature some wonderful music. It reminds me of a time when dance and electronic music was really exciting, there was a vibrancy about the scene, smaller labels were releasing wonderful music, new genres were emerging and people were really open minded about music. Sadly, that did not last. The big labels gatecrashed the downtempo market, smaller labels fell by the wayside and previously good compilation series’ started releasing third rate releases. However, for a few years, many good downtempo compilations were released, and I hope you have as much fun exploring them today, as I did many years ago.