Thursday, September 6, 2012

Album Review: KOAN Sound - The Adventures of Mr. Fox

Album Rating: B
The electronic music label OWSLA is a curious one. Created mid-2011 by Skrillex amid the meteoric rise of brostep around the world (especially in the U.S.), it’s garnered both great acclaim and heavy criticism for its ever-growing catalogue. The label’s massive influence on the electronic world can’t be denied, as it’s been making waves since its first release (Porter Robinson’s Spitfire EP), which crashed the Beatport servers upon first being released due to overwhelming demand and launched the young electro prodigy’s career into the stratosphere. This has prompted music fans all over the Internet to either bash or praise fervently the label’s signees, with names like Kill the Noise, Zedd, Nick Thayer and (especially) the label boss himself being alternately flamed and lauded probably more than artists on any other electronic label out there today. And no wonder: one has to appreciate the wide variety of controversial talent Skrillex and his team have assembled. From club-destroyers like Porter Robinson, Kill the Noise and Zedd, to the lesser-known styles brought about by Birdy Nam Nam and Hundred Waters, to widely respected artists trying out new (and often unappreciated) things, i.e. Skream and Sub Focus, the material OWSLA has released so far almost seems crafted intentionally to spark debate.

In fact, there’s probably only one artist on OWSLA who’s received almost unanimous praise: KOAN Sound, a dubstep/glitch duo from Bristol, UK. No matter how much people talk trash about other big names on the label, critics and casual listeners alike praise the duo for everything they do. People love a lot of things about KOAN Sound: their top-notch production skills, the retro, funk-infused feel they bring to everything they create, their special glitchy homage to old-school hip-hop, and countless other good qualities. As a critic, I have to appreciate their intense attention to detail in all their songs - from the subtly growling bass in “Blessed” to the glitchy, precarious beats in “Coast to Coast” to the incredible synth sounds in glitch hop banger “Max Out,” everything is made fresh and with love. It’s like that perfect batch of cookies with just the right amount of sugar and vanilla, just like Mom used to make. It reminds us of a better time, when funk/hip-hop/whatever genre you loved (or pretend to have loved) reigned and DJs used vinyl instead of Macbooks.

Riding atop this wave of adulation comes KOAN Sound’s new EP, The Adventures of Mr. Fox. The duo seem to be trying as hard as they can to maintain the “retro” feel they’ve created so well on previous releases, which is most apparent with artwork reminiscent of the “good old days” and the name of the opening track, “80s Fitness.” And, sure, sometimes it feels like KOAN Sound are trying a little too hard to make their music take the listener back in time: on “80s Fitness,” KOAN Sound take the synth sounds that worked so well on a glitchy, vivacious “Coast to Coast” and suck all the life out of them, putting them over an uncharacteristically flat and dull 110 BPM electro beat. But, for the most part, KOAN Sound do in fact create fantastic funk-infused and glitchy electro of the sort that’s made them famous and loved throughout the electronic world. “Eastern Thug,” the standout track on this EP, starts off with a quietly intense piano line and an occasionally strumming string instrument, and then transitions into a buildup that seamlessly connects the intro with a brutal synth line and KOAN Sound’s characteristic glitchy 100 BPM drums. I cannot stress enough how perfectly the introduction flows into the buildup, or how perfectly the buildup leads into the rest of the song - KOAN Sound have really created something incredible here. “Sly Fox” is a funky tribute to a better time, and the combination of funk bass, hip-hop-styled beats, and KOAN Sound’s trademark wobbles evoke a nostalgic feeling most people love to feel. Finally, “Introvert” is probably the first track KOAN Sound has made that wouldn’t work in a live environment. Melancholy piano chords and subdued drums meld with a growling bassline that surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place with the more toned-down background. It’s more subtle than one might have expected from the duo, but it contrasts well with the rest of the EP.

The sad thing is that the main flaw with the EP lies not with KOAN Sound themselves, but the remixes. Techy drum & bass titan Reso takes an already lifeless “80s Fitness” and, instead of injecting much-needed energy into the song, syncopates the beats uncomfortably. It feels uncomfortable and jarring and ends up leaving a mangled corpse instead of a resurrected tune. Similarly, Australia’s resident glitch hop master Opiuo changes “Sly Fox” only minimally, most notably repeating the vocal sample a couple times too many and, like Reso, creating an uncomfortable syncopation. And although techstep duo Neosignal’s club-smashing rework of “Eastern Thug” isn’t a bad remix by any means, the charm of the original is lost and the remix pales in comparison. However, even a slate of bad remixes can’t hold back a solid release from a solid production duo. If you’re looking for funk, glitch, hip-hop, or something to remind you of the good old days, this is for you.

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1. 80s Fitness
2. Eastern Thug
3. Sly Fox
4. Introvert
5. 80s Fitness (Reso Remix)
6. Eastern Thug (Neosignal Remix)
7. Sly Fox (Opiuo Remix)

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