Monday, August 11, 2008

µ-Ziq - Royal Astronomy

µ-Ziq - Royal Astronomy
by Ian Mathers

If I wondered whether this generation's getting a proper grounding in the Smiths, I worry even worse if they’ve even heard of Mike Paradinas. An important component of my listening when I started getting into music was investigating what was then the “hip” “and new” trend of, well, in those days they called it electronica. Thanks to, and in conjunction with, my friend Pete, we started on Orbital and Underworld and then ventured further afield until we were digging up things that made Aphex Twin sound like pop music. Heady days, and half of the stuff we rhapsodized over appealed to us in terms of weirdness and excess more than anything else.

But not Paradinas’ records as µ-Ziq. One of the relatively few discs from that period that I still kept around, Royal Astronomy should particularly stand as a classic, one of the few proper LPs of what they used to call IDM that actually provides an interesting, intelligible listening experience today. Arguably better assembled and composed than even Richard D. James’ work (excepting maybe …I Care Because You Do), you can’t say Paradinas started many trends, but he did make the kind of album that should have ensured lasting repute.

Except he went away. Partly not his fault; after the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, etc. failed to supplant grunge or whatever as the new pop, the press visibly backed off on all flavours of “electronica.” Coupled with Paradinas’ adoption of a four-year wait time between albums after 1999, people just ceased talking about the guy anymore. Royal Astronomy received good reviews (the few I’ve found), but that’s never enough to keep anyone in the public consciousness (especially someone whose page at Astralwerks seems unduly proud of having sold “in excess of 60,000 world-wide” copies of his debut, before the days of file sharing). If we’re talking about greats of electronic music in the late 90s, you’ll hear James, probably Tom Jenkinson, teams like the Hartnoll brothers, possiblysome populists like Oakenfold (err, depending on who you’re talking to), but probably not Paradinas.

Obviously I feel that’s a shame, but why? After the memorably dense and creepy drum-and-bass soundscapes of 1997’s Lunatic Harness, Paradinas toured with Björk. Paradinas was influenced by her work with a string section during her live sets so much that he appended it to parts of his new album, as well as just heading in a relatively poppier direction. I'm guessing he also started listening to a lot of hiphop. Sound like an unholy brew so far?

The range of Royal Astronomy is best summed up by its first two tracks: “Scaling” starts the record all strings and bells and odd little synthesizer fillips, for four minutes it sounds unconcerned with any of the practical considerations that touch music made by humans. A timpani thuds away softly, the strings soar, the same little melodic figure calmly repeats—the result is sublime. Then “The Hwicci Song” dopplers into view with rapidly sawing strings and a more determined melody, only to be interrupted by turntable scratching (which does kind of sound like ‘hwicci’) and a sampled MC repeating “you want a fresh style, let me show you” until it frays. There’s a beat poking under it rather than just some percussion and it’s a fantastically busy one; Paradinas, like a lot of his peers, often suspended free-floating melodies above knotty, driving drum patterns, but does it so well he makes it fresh again.

“The Hwicci Song” alone is such a bizarre and yet pleasing collision of rough and smooth, frantic and calm, that it’s trouble to categorize. Much of Royal Astronomy does a similarly great job of combining these disparate elements: Paradinas’ experience in crafting complex drum-and-bass/abstract showcases, the strings and other orchestral elements, a canny pop sense, and rap’s sense of braggadocio and aggression.

The pinnacles of the latter are the two longest productions on the album, “The Motorbike Track” and “Burst Your Arm.” Both are hard as fuck and drop the strings entirely, deploying MCs to tell us, “That is some greedy-ass fake bullshit, know what I mean?” and “Keep on faking the funk” over wild rides of squelchy, distorted synthesizers and Paradinas’ hardest beats ever. They’re exhilaratingly brutal tracks, and only moreso given their surroundings.

One surprising peak is “Carpet Muncher”, a brief but incredible track that in three minutes shows off little bits of all of the facets Paradinas was working at, and is as close as this music can get to a killer pop. Elsewhere, Paradinas throws nearly everything at the wall—the horror movie soundtrack of “Gruber’s Mandolin,” the queasy synths of “World of Leather,” the reflective choirs of “56,” “Mentim”’s far-off explosions, the peaceful-village-on-acid video game “Slice”—and it all sticks. Part of this is cunning sequencing, opening with a string of immediate and ingratiating tracks, rationing out the harder/longer tracks over the course of the album to give some balance and heft to proceedings, throwing you just enough curves to keep you interested.

And then there’s Kazumi. A Japanese fan of Paradinas’ who mailed him a VHS tape (ah, nostalgia!) of herself singing to some of his tracks, a near impossible feat in the abstract. But she was good enough at it that he asked her to sing on a few tracks here. The closing “Goodbye, Goodbye” is nearly flawless, with Kazumi repeating the same line over and over on one of Paradinas’ most touching productions. It’s a perfect way to end the record and justifies the decision to enlist her help. But it doesn’t even come close to touching her other contribution to the album, the mighty “The Fear”.

I could write another entire essay just on how “The Fear” is one of the few truly great singles of its era and genre (as opposed to dancefloor tracks and the like) and dissecting why (plenty of which has to do with Kazumi’s performance, and plenty more to do with the music that Paradinas sets up around her), but you should really hear for yourself. It’s an utterly deranged moment of genius in the way only pop can be so weird, transmuting disparate, non-poplike attributes into something magnificent and lasting. “The Fear” comprises this strange woman muttering something you don't quite understand over a surprisingly bouncy, endlessly rising melodic figure, that develops into something else altogether and towers over its unlikely parts. It's always put me in mind of grand, heroic quests for some reason; both the feeling of setting out in a wide and dangerous world, and the bittersweet ending, when you've succeeded, but in the back of your mind regretting that it's all over.

Ian Mathers has written for Stylus Magazine, Village Voice and the world's biggest Philip K. Dick fan site. He is currently finishing his Master's degree in Philosophy at the University of Guelph and wishes he had more time to write about music.



Blogger Neil said...

I've always loved this record, but even among friends who like this kind of stuff it never seemed to get any love. Glad you're giving it some belated recogntion!

August 12, 2008 at 3:42 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Cheers, Neil! Glad to hear someone else remembers it.

August 13, 2008 at 8:04 AM  
Blogger hutlock said...

Oh I remember it! I just don't like it as much as you guys do!

August 14, 2008 at 3:23 PM  

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