Tag Archives: Akira The Don

Transylvanilla Presents: How Is It The 20th

So it’s the Holiday Season one and all, and let’s get this one out of the way early: a lot of you are excited for Christmas next week. And Christmas time means Christmas Music, and Christmas Music means Michael Bublé. Music to fall asleep slammed on rum and eggnog to – so let’s put this one straight on the table:

Christmas music is terrible. 

Christmas Music is some of the laziest pop of the last 60 years. 

And I’m not kidding about the last 60 years – you’re aware that most of the beloved Christmas hits are eery utopian 1950’s fantasies articulated through some of the laziest songwriting in history… right? And let’s not get me started on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Coercion in C Major” whatever that song’s original title must have been. It’s like 5 days til Christmas, Transylvanilla readers, and if you’re anything like me you’re headed to the mall like right now to get that shopping in before the inevitable last-day all-out beatdown at the local Toys’R’Us over whatever Adventure Time gear is in vogue right now. It’s cool, you can do this, you’re Saint Nicholas, you’re Santa you’re… well maybe you’re Krampus. I’m not your boss.You’re gonna march right in there and buy the hell out of that Blood On The Dance Floor album for your inexplicably tone-deaf little nephew. Yes you are.

But you’re going to wear headphones.

Because you’re sure as heck not doing it to the mall’s terrifying menagerie of Christmas Muzak, you’re better than that and you know it. 

And hey, maybe I’m better than that and maybe I’m not – but I know what I like, and I’m an irreligious East Van Music Guy. Maybe you are too, or maybe you just want to see me faceplant into some of my more embarrassing musical selections. So what do we play around here at Transylvanilla Publishing a.k.a. The Crow’s Nest a.k.a. The Krampus Den when it’s freezing out? Glad you asked. Introducing:

Transylvanilla’s 2013 Christmas Throwdown: Baby, It’s Cold Outside (but I understand and respect that you’re more comfortable going home, so maybe another time)

Some of it is even gonna be Christmas-themed! Fun!

Disclaimer: This list comes with the knowledge and assumption that you know I’m kind of about to embarrass myself. This also isn’t a Christmas List: these are the things that take me to Winter, when I’m feeling Wintery, and I think we might all benefit from knowing what music makes me feel like it’s snowing out. ‘Tis the season etc. and so on!

水田直志 – The Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections

Okay, so maybe I’m starting a little weird, but this is by far my favourite Christmas-season album of all time. And of course it has nothing to do with Christmas – this piano collection is nothing more or less than two Japanese pianists wandering through solo (and duet) piano performances of several of Final Fantasy XI’s more memorable tunes. It’s absolutely gorgeous – it’s the kind of thing I can’t properly put a label on, but I can say I’ve been listening to this thing for years on end, every winter, and that I bought it at an Asian music store at least 7 years ago. Please, give it a shot and you’ll see what I mean – this is simply some of the most gorgeous contemporary piano stuff I’ve heard in a long time. So there’s something solitary and uniquely rhythmic about a solitary piano performance that I’ve always equated to long evenings spent inside watching the snow fall outside – and no doubt this falls back to my own childhood, shackled to the piano as I was. Regardless, weirdly enough this thing is my quintessential christmas album. But don’t worry – we’ll get weirder.

Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit

We’re going to do a lot of genre meandering here, but I can’t stress this next part enough: if you’re into the weirder, more subtly artistic side of black metal, I cannot advocate Marrow of the Spirit heavily enough for winter listening. And of course Black Metal (and, really, metal of all varieties) plays so wonderfully during winter – the queer calmness of the landscape, muted by snow. The flurry of snowflakes. The bitter cold. This album, maybe more than any other I’ll show here, was explicitly recorded to sound like winter, and I’ve rarely heard an album that portrays that Pacific-Northwestern soggy cold quite as well. Look at that cover! Listen to this nine-minute song about a lake! Agalloch writes winding, massive opuses spanning dynamic range, musical influence (Folk Black Metal!) and… a lot of time, clearly. Discovered a few years ago, Agalloch quickly became my gateway into a lot of Black Metal’s weirder impulses, a surprising amount of which are being exercised right here in the Pacific Northwest. They’re a fantastic band, and if this happens to floor you, I quietly and fervently gesture in the direction of Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage as well. Which is a concept album about, apparently, moss.

Akira The Don – Saturnalia Superman: Akira The Don Salutes the Majesty of Christmas

You knew I wasn’t getting out of here without bringing this dude into it, didn’t you? Though technically ATD-whichever, Akira’s Christmas album (and it is one, the first on this list) really stands apart from a lot of his catalogue – it’s well produced, well put-together and – oh, I’ve already reviewed it. And.. I liked it! Well that’s a relief. In all honesty, the album is a ton of fun, and he’s got it online so I’ll waste no time with links. Akira, a friend of the show, just knows how to have fun. He also knows how to keep Christmas in his own odd way – while simultaneously being a punk about Santa, poking holes in the myth of December 25th, wrangling a weirdly sexy duet out of fellow UK-rapper Envy, producing a beautiful, largely instrumental track with his Father-in-Law and telling us all about doing acid on Christmas. Yep. Naturally, this is a Yuletide hit around these parts – and would be even if it weren’t a blast, because at least it wasn’t written in the 50’s as a culture-vampirizing cash-grab, maaaan. I love my Christmas good and critical, which also largely validates our next choice…

Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick: One Christmas At A Time

Last Christmas I sat on the floor, listened to “Christmas Is Interesting” north of about 5 times in a row and just… thought about life. Recorded as a very intentional response to the crap pop music we’re all inevitably exposed to each winter, One Christmas At A Time is a fantastic little collection of odd christmas tunes written by odd Christmas men – and this is Jonathan Coulton of course, the man that wrote the Portal song and that track about being an evil genius, so yes the quirk level is fairly high. There’s a Johnny Cash tribute, “2600” about wanting an Atari, the tear-jerking “Christmas Is Interesting”, a song about a drunk family member – it’s really all here. This one’s basically impossible to look up online (that is, to youtube) so you’ll have to go on a recommendation and just grab it. I bought this one on a whim and was completely impressed; the songwriting ranges from laugh-inducing to eerily incisive (and that’s Coulton for you), the guitar-work (largely courtesy of the brilliant John Roderick) is gorgeous, and the whole thing just feels like a modern, appropriately critical Christmas. It’s grand.

Oh and there’s a track in which they just read out the Wikipedia entry for Hanukkah to a techno beat. So that’s pretty great.

Aivi and Surasshu – The Black Box

Here’s a fun one, and a project I’d really like to draw more attention to. The Black Box comes with a pretty piano music warning, but runs on a real neat premise: it’s a story about a girl making a robot friend, told simultaneously through a series of synthesizer/piano duets and the comic that comes with the album. It’s not complicated, and it isn’t going to blow your mind, but the musical direction behind these two pianists (as well as their musical chemistry) is simply fantastic. The synthesizer side will flip into chiptune influences, or squeak out some Sonic The Hedgehog-style casino-horns, just as the piano side will shimmer brilliantly and arpeggiate into a Mario quotation, or a Katamari Damacy one, or the Final Fantasy theme. It’s a really interesting, novel approach to making music – simultaneously telling their own story, writing their own jazz, and flipping perpetually to various videogame references – and it really sets the duo apart. Additionally, and this is aside from my propensity for loving piano music when it’s snowing, all of The Black Box skitters and dances; it never gets particularly heavy, invasive or bass-involved. Which is to say it’s perfect snowfall-music. It’s relaxing, it’s pretty, it’s available for whatever you feel like paying. So please do pick it up – I have a feeling these two independents need all the support we can give them – and the comic isn’t half-bad either.

GZA – Liquid Swords

I might have to do a lot of things on this site, but I know I don’t have to tell you why you need to be listening to Liquid Swords, right? Like, if you care about hip-hop at all there’s a pretty absurdly sizable list of reasons you need to have heard it. Aside from the lyrical acrobatics, the GZA’s centipede-consistent flow, the rock-solid consistency (and occasional weirdness!) of RZA’s production, the brilliance of Method Man’s cameos (and how his voice contrasts to GZA’s), the brilliance of imagery, the absolutely baffling final track “B.I.B.L.E.” – I’m not kidding. Rap fans can kind of sit around and evangelize Liquid Swords all day. Above and beyond all that, it just sounds cold, it’s an album that sounds amazing walking around at night, listening to Liquid Swords, grasping a hot rum and eggnog. If you haven’t tried it, do it. You’ll see what I mean. It’s just that simple.

Nightwish – Imaginaerum

Here’s another one I’ve already reviewed – though I don’t think that necessarily excuses me from including it here. Why not the other Nightwish albums, why not Oceanborn (your easy alternative if you, like many other fans, wholly-justifiably hate their new vocal direction). Imaginaerum is one of those albums I was reviewing a couple of Christmases ago – a time I spent a lot of time at home, playing Killing Floor near my window (like an adult.) and watching the snow come down. Lo and behold, what might otherwise have been something of a hammy record – if a brilliantly produced one – slowly grew on me, to the point that its Gothic theme-park aesthetic (intentionally wintery) gradually subsumed itself into my winter listening ritual-thing. “Taikatalvi” is still suitably eery, “Slow Love” still sounds like a sleazy(er?) Twin Peaks throwback, “Song of Myself” is still totally baffling. But there’s a grandiosity to its melodrama, and certainly to its production, that proves irresistible during this season. It’s very much Metal-if-Burton-had-gone-back-to-Disney, but in its own special way Imaginaerum is exhilarating and fun and oddly comforting – it’s a warm album, to contrast to nearly every other album on this list’s frigidity. To be listened to, preferably, while playing Killing Floor. Near a fireplace. To be avoided if you’re at all concerned about being kvlt.

Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle Earth

Not only more faithful to Tolkein than Peter Jackson’s intepretations, but actually more faithful to Peter Jackson than Peter Jackson’s interpretations, I completely understand if you’re giggling at me right now while my metal cred slowly drips away. That’s fine, because if you’re in on this one, you know, man. “Nightfall“, “Blood Tears“, “When Time Stand Still (At the Iron Hill)” – I’m not kidding, this thing is The Silmarillion‘s Beowulf-ian logical conclusion, Tolkein as epic power-metal rock-opera, complete with questionable voice-acting and a reverse-order telling of Tolkein’s most notoriously-unread work. Absolutely it’s silly, it’s also the ultimate speed-metal soundtrack to your next Dark Souls session. If Marrow of the Spirit wants to sound like gurgling brooks and falling snow, Nightfall in Middle Earth is Skyrim, complete with the blizzards and bloodshed. Falling directly at the point between Blind Guardian’s speed-metal roots and their transformation into Queen Tribute Band it can be argued this is the best they ever got, and certainly the single best album 14 year-old Lucas could ever have hoped to discover. Just check all seriousness at the door and pick up your shield. They aren’t kidding, and neither am I. Nightfall.

Amebix – Sonic Mass

Yep, this one again from once-crust-Punks Amebix, if you wanted metal to restore your faith in dead-serious metal after Blind Guardian’s Tolkeinian romp, here you go. As dark and heavy as it is ponderous and forceful, Sonic Mass has been a favourite since the moment friend Ryeburg and I discovered it. An album to be listened to on dark nights while walking, Sonic Mass is ominous and empowering, a dark time-traveling saga whose story I have yet to wholly parse. Laser-sighted to strike at the heart of a metalhead’s pride, “Days” is a mortality-based tearjerker, “Sonic Mass” is a metal soundscape in two parts, “God of the Grain” collects gods throughout history under one crushing, danceable banner (and is as close to anything Christmas-y you’ll find here). Not bad for a bunch of old Crust Punks turned heavy-metallers turned retirees. They came out of the blue to release this album, and disappeared just as suddenly. Heavily, unironically recommended for you metalheads that haven’t heard it yet, Sonic Mass will be a late-night favourite here at The Nest for a long time to come.

Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain

Remember everything I said about Liquid Swords up there? All still true. Vaudeville Villain by, ahem, Viktor Vaughn aka Madvillain aka King Gheedorah aka DangerDoom aka Zev Love X aka JJ DOOM aka Mr. Clean aka MF DOOM aka Daniel Duhmile (and I’m sure I missed a couple) as a deeply weird, swept-under-the-rug sort of hip-hop album. Viktor Vaughn (as in, Victor Von Doom, as in Dr. Doom of Marvel fame) is MF Doom’s young hustler persona, still learning the ropes, and existing in a sort of topsy-turvy version of gangland New York, a vaguely surreal place in which old ladies carry heat and stick up their would-be attackers. Viktor is sort of crap at this whole hustler thing, and that comes out through his lyricism – and of course no one can carry wordplay quite like Mf Doom. Along with his plethora of producer buddies, Viktor Vaughn is also Mf Doom’s multi-collaborative project, working with anyone that supplies him with a sufficiently icy beat to rhyme over. And I suppose that’s why this one comes out when it gets cold outside – I’m not looking for the basement-warm comfort of an Mf Doom joint, nor the murkiness of the King Gheedorah project, or Madvillain’s summery and hazy weirdness – I want a guy out on the streets, trying to make ends meet, and who kind of sucks at it. And so Vaudeville Villain worms its way into the Christmastime playlist for the same reasons Liquid Swords does: it’s a rock solid hip-hop album bolstered by a strong anchor in weird and an utterly unique lyrical attraction. It also sounds real good out there in the cold, y’all.

Venetian Snares – My Downfall (Official Soundtrack)

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Aaron Funk is up to with his Venetian Snares project without forcing you to listen to it, so I suppose I’ll just do that. Crushing in its precision, but gorgeous in the way it utilizes classical under and overtones alongside its crashing waves of breakcore samples, My Downfall is as beautiful as it is intimidating, and my favourite album of his (amongst other reasons, because the soundtrack structure forces Funk into a kind of concision and sobriety he usually avoids). Not an easy listen, but in its own strange way a beautiful one, My Downfall is better experienced than explained. Wintery for the same reason I obsess over piano music during the holiday season, I suppose – it gives me that classical edge I crave without necessarily polluting it with Christmas-guilt, or pop nonsense, or religious affiliation. Classical Music for the musical nihilist during this, the holiday season.

Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas

If you’re wondering why this is on here, shame on you. Duh. I don’t need to explain a damn thing about The Charlie Brown Friggin Christmas Album – aka some of the finest jazz interpretations of Christmas music we ever got, alongside absolutely beautiful original compositions. Bonus points for including “Christmas Time Is Here”, one of the most unintentionally(?) heartbreaking holiday-season songs of all time. Nothing like it, before or after. (Except maybe “Christmas Is Interesting”).

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DJ Shadow – Endtroducing

Please, please listen to Endtroducing. This is almost on here as a charity thing, as I listen to it during long winter nights, yes, but also all other times of the year, provided the sun is down. Endtroducing is nothing more or less than my favourite album of all time, and I’m not kidding, and I won’t recall that for anything. Wait until you’re feeling quiet, calm, and maybe a little lonely. Let Endtroducing simultaneously exorcise and exacerbate your winter blues in the way only the best winter albums can. Cobbled entirely from samples, there’s nothing like it – take a look.

Afroman: Colt 45 Christmas

Like that relative you really don’t want to see, or that neighbour that just kind of… wanders over during your Christmas party, I can’t not include Colt 45 Christmas. I also sort of can’t explain Colt 45 Christmas. This is down here like a sort of gambit to see if you’ve read this far, to be honest (Hi Mom! Please don’t listen to Colt 45 Christmas, Mom!). It’s a classic, in its own awful way. I can’t not. I have to. And when I’m done, I whisper “I’m sorry” out into the world. To no one. To everyone.

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Yuletide TL;DR

So there you have it, friends and (now, no doubt) various foes! The sorts of things that end up on my ipod come Christmas, Holiday seasons. If it’s cold outside, so turns my taste to different sorts of music. Please, by all means, I advocate jumping on whatever your music-delivery service is and copping as many of these as necessary. Though far from exhaustive, I hope this list has given you people at least something new to chew on this Holiday season. Remember: just because you aren’t religious, just because you’re literally physically allergic to the sound of Michael Bublé’s voice, doesn’t mean there isn’t music out there that you can’t associate with the season. Because it’s still about the season, and maybe musical tokens, played annually, that can draw you back to that place – close to your family, dog, girlfriend, whatever – is a valuable thing.

Feel free to share your own, here or on the Facebook thing. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming as soon as the Holidays relent their icy grip on my time.

Happy Holidays 2013 y’all. Thanks for sticking around.

– Transylvanilla

Oh I forgot to mention Chopin. Yeah, listen to as much Chopin as possible. Have a loved one nearby.

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Akira The Don – ATD29

Akira the Don’s relationship to mixtape culture is as extensive as it is instrumental to his success, but perhaps the sight of ATD29 (that’s ATD Mixtape Number 29) up there is going to turn people off, maybe it’s intimidating. Twenty-Nine Mixtapes?! they’ll exclaim, shuddering at the prospect of chugging through 29 mostly album-length releases by a man somehow not 80 years old (and not Lil B of  800+ Myspace tracks). Maybe they’ll assume the mixtapes are disposable retreads on beats, or a ruse (Skrillex) to distract us from Akira’s fear of full-length releases. Akira’s as much a friend of the show here as anyone, and I’ll be quick to disclose that he’s an ally of Transylvanilla, I’m an old fan of his, and yes, 29 Mixtapes is a towering queue of releases. What’s astounding is they aren’t throwaways: Akira’s latest series (especially 25 and 26) have been on steady rotation for ages here at The Nest, and my archives show this isn’t my first encounter with his material. That said, written and recorded over 29 hours(!!) apparently on my birthday, ATD29 marks Akira’s first ‘proper’ mixtape in quite a while: other peoples’ beats, his own mixing and production, guest verses, an original production or two, an autotuned jam with his human son Hercules friggin Narkiewicz. It’s a Mixtape Mixtape, not an album in disguise (Manga Music being especially arguable). And that’s great! The stakes are low, Akira’s having fun, Big Narstie shows up to yell about #Pain. It’s enjoyable. It’s a return to form for Akira, whose discography stacks on his website like a teetering pile of zines, and deigns to drop a studio album only whenever the content suits his greater narrative arc. So kick back, and let’s dig in for around the 29th time.

Smokin’ Joe kicks off the album the same way he did  ATD25, though ‘intro’ is something of a misnomer; it’s also a screaming oldschool funk beat courtesy of DJ Mink. Akira’s all over the place: he’s energized, he’s awarding himself Nobel prizes, he’s shouting out to his kid and everyone else. The beat’s manic and so’s the MC, briefing and hyping the crowd, and slicing directly into the molasses-heavy “Hash In The Post” – based on a true story. ‘Hash hovers under a beat by Mike Will Made It and Akira’s back to his old tricks with the voice modulator. The beat’s lumbering, and Akira floats under the mix, bubbling up to echo his chorus. That vocal processing is his best friend these days for good reason: it lets him keep the tone low-key and gurgle out the verses – even if he weren’t rapping about coming up as an aspiring rapper, or flying a based spaceship to a planet unsullied by police or a lack of weed, the effect locks ‘Hash into place. In fact, Akira keeps it fairly heavy for the first several tracks, tearing into an anti-racist polemic on Chief-Keef-nod “Hate SOSA”. And again with the vocal processing: this time it’s an autotune flutter, yanking the track from Keef’s bark and into outer space. Processing song after song, and keeping the beats weighty, gives ATD29‘s opening few tracks a neat sort of consistency. Sure they aren’t long, but they’re fun – MC and audience alike can float on through (with their Hash), cracking hazy smiles at the jokes. …Until Akira breaks set over Action Bronson’s “Pouches of Tuna“. I’ll fanboy for a second and say that hearing Akira rock nasty raps over that beat, nodding to sexual misdemeanours in Bronson’s style, is a treat. This is what mixtape culture is for: taking a dope beat, even miming another artist’s style, and putting your own vocal tics and production smirks into it. It’s all in good fun, it gives him the opportunity to throw a flanger on “Tuna” and rap nasty Bronson-isms like “abstain from fuckery/a Miss Kentucky Derby depravity/a little fucky-sucky in the lavatory” – and it comes off like wordplay homage. Nice. Because it’s Akira messing around in the studio we do get awkward rhymes about his dragon-spirit-animal-thing from his childhood, but there’s a looseness and casualness that licenses it all to fit. Even when it seems to lack polish, that’s sort of what ATD29 is for.

Following “Tuna” we hit an Akira original: “End of the Road” featuring Big Narstie and Footsie, that really wouldn’t feel out of place in Narstie’s catalogue. The two-step isn’t out of place here either, slotting into 29‘s darker first half. Narstie and Footsie are in top form, locking in as the background horns pop, and Akira’s back on his political rap scene, and tearing into UK banks in a style that would sit comfortably on one of his bigger releases. With “End of the Road” closing out the grimy half of the tape – because Akira The Don is partially a pop musician – It’s Dance Time. I’ll be the first to admit that these tracks took time to grow on me: I’ve come around on them to an extent, but there’s no mistaking the 8-minute dance party lurking in the middle of ATD29. To its credit, “When Life Gives You Lemons PUNCH LIFE IN THE FUCKING FACE” does feature a fear bit of autobiographical rap (which is great) and the chorus is a fun bit of gratuity filtered through robot-chop processing, but it does drag on a bit. This will certainly quench the thirst of anyone that needed more ATD to toss in their hardstyle mix, so perhaps I’m getting this one in the wrong context. East-Van-Cafe not so much, but in club? A blast, likely, and true of so much dance music. Which is the same deal for the next track’s re-remix of vintage ATD track “OMG (This Is So My Jam)”. Again this isn’t necessarily my, uh, jam, but couldn’t it be if I were partying? And so this is sometimes how we must approach music journalism: I’ll begrudgingly admit that ATD29‘s dance-wasteland might be quite fun! Real loud. Drunk with friends. As it is, it sits as an unexpected intermission, chopping the tape in two. It does, though, bring us to “Django”.

Go buy “Django”, seriously. Don’t mess around: here’s Don and Narstie rapping over an Akira-produced remix of that friggin’ sweet Brown/Tupac mashup from Django Unchained. I can’t stress enough: this production kicks ass. Hands down, it’s one of the finest beats Akira’s ever whipped up, and because ATD29 is a largely outsourced production, “Django” centrepieces it perfectly: this is the proper follow-up to favourites “Lord I Miss (Red Dead Redemption)” and “Big Iron” that we waited years to get. Like those tracks, it’s also a bit silly! That said, I can’t remember hearing this much obvious fun bang out of a production studio in a long time. Everyone’s having a blast, listener included, when those horns drop. To be played loud, inebriated, preferably while astride a horse.

 
ATD29 really has no choice but to cool down after “Django”. It drifts into space-rap about burning spliffs and Thundercats, “Burnt Teeth” that rips another Bronson beat (and slows “Buddy Guy” to its original speed), Don’s political and Satoshi-Kon-dedicated “Daylight” take, and a pair of tracks for his young son, before quietly coming to a stop. One of these odes to Hercules is the roaring, triumphant “Theme From Hercules”, the other’s simply an autotuned Akira singing his son “Moon River”. Both are touching and strange in their own odd, unexpected ways. How cool is that? I love mixtape culture. And really that’s what ATD29 is: Akira’s return to making mixtapes in the classic mode; I can’t not engage with it personally. And while it sometimes plays fast and loose, this thing was slammed together in 29 hours as an intermission between bigger releases. Great swaths of ATD29 are a blast to listen to, and while the pacing gets a bit bizarre (brief tracks, the dance tracks, the sentimental, strange ending) it’s difficult to fault a man that made this in hardly 2 days while celebrating the existence of his brand new human son. Oh right, and he’s uploaded it here if you’d like to listen, too. Real cool, Akira.

A difficult project to score, I think. But here’s a number.

7.0

Full Disclosure: As a longtime friend of Transylvanilla, Akira mailed me this release out of the blue, stating I could review it, enjoy it, whatever. And so, much later, I did. Much respect to Akira The Don and his family unit! 

Full Disclosure 2.0: I missed you guys, too. Thanks for reading.

Reviewed right here, October 20, 2013.

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Akira The Don – Saturnalia Superman: Akira The Don Salutes the Majesty of Christmas

Hey, Adam Narkiewicz came out with another LP today (okay, yesterday), less than three months after his last one! And he’s dropped it right in the middle of Saturnalia itself, how thematically appropriate! I don’t have to go through the walkthrough this time: if you love Akira’s stuff, and you have to be a special kind of person to do this, you will have a big silly grin on your face for much of Saturnalia Superman. It’s as simply as that: fans can’t not cackle at the Nutcracker Suite sample on “Jimmy Savile Swag”, they can’t not smile at the album’s opener “A Very Merry Ho Ho Ho” when he wishes his  mother and father “and their new respective partners” a very merry Christmas. He’s infectious and ineffably positive, and the cult of personality is in full effect – even when Saturnalia Superman takes some surprisingly thoughtful and unconventional twists towards the end.

Musically, Akira’s in control on this one: he covers a good 90% of the verses this time around, flipping between the feel-good hollering of “A Very Merry Ho Ho Ho” and his trademark political flows on “Ha Satan” with ease (on what might be his most politically-charged track since “Thanks for All the AIDS“). “Jimmy Savile Swag” (Westerners, go wiki who that is) rides that hard-leaning two-step beat everyone loves these days, and Akira’s infatuation with autotune continues make an appearance. Its presence is most obviously  felt on the eyebrow-raising Envy feature “Sexmas”, which is entertaining and meandering and ends with Envy reminding us she’s “going to heat it up like a Mincemeat pie” amongst other bizarre Christmas-related sex-threats (“wrap you up with Fairy Lights, it’s gonna be good”). As on ATD 26, while autotune rears its blocky head every couple of tracks, it’s very clearly a stylistic decision: Akira’s (and Envy’s) voice flutters, it bounces around, and unlike so much autotuning it’s no attempt to fake anyone’s way into opera-level virtuosity. It’s a level of honesty and earnestness that Akira brings to all his work these days, and as on his other albums it goes hard at work, grounding Saturnalia Superman and providing a great deal of his appeal.

Clanging bells and other Christmas jolliness pervade this album (“A Christmas Movie”), but it isn’t without its surprises: most of Akira’s version of “Bleak Midwinter” is a surprisingly heartfelt vocal duet by Akira’s Cornish Welsh in-laws, proceeding a cappella before the piano, flute and strings kick in and set off what eventually builds into the album’s most beautiful track. “Bleak Midwinter” falls mid-album, and precedes another nine-and-a-half minute surprise: “17 Year Old Blonde Girl And A Bottle of Acid”, featuring a man named Issue, who really cannot sing (thankfully, he seems to know this). Like its title might suggest, it’s a trip: what begins as an odd bit of hood-meandering by Issue quickly breaks down into a heartbreaking ode to a forgotten female trip-mate, delivered by Akira himself. The album’s greatest and most sobering moment, it’s a strange and thought-provoking piece, sprawling its narrative across several harrowing minutes and telling a story that isn’t always easy to hear. When Akira tells us that he’s opening Christmas presents with his mum and little brother and the “wrapping paper seem[s] to crawl up [his] arm like tentacles” the psychedelic imagery combines with our notions of Christmas’s assumed innocence to shock and disorient the listener. It’s extremely effective stuff, and lends heavy dosage of reality to the typical Christmas Album format.  In a sense, all of Saturnalia Superman follows this model: simultaneously celebrating the holiday season (and life!) while offering thoughtful reminders of its reality – murder, drugs, rampant commercialism and Akira’s trademark resolution to carry on (closer “In The Morning”) all make appearances here.

Of course, Saturnalia Superman wouldn’t manage to be an ATD LP if it didn’t somehow pull off being a party, even in its bleakest moments. It isn’t his most consistent album – much of his merry band of thieves is missing (can we imagine Christmas Big Narstie? Let’s.) – but Saturnalia Superman can’t help being an enjoyable time, even in its more experimental and meandering moments. Another solid entry in the ATD catalogue (though not strictly ATD 27), Saturnalia Superman is supremely topical during the season, and offers several tracks destined to prove their staying power in the Akira catalogue. It goes by quickly, a widely various series of Christmas-themed sketches in the life of one more dude trying to get by. It’s an Xmas album for people that live in the real world, who’ve had experiences, that aren’t much for major commercialism and don’t know what to think about God but know they like hip-hop and spending time with their folks. How much more can we ask for for Christmas than that?

7.5

Bonus Level:

Saturnalia Superman As a Christmas Album is a grand triumph, intelligent, heartfelt and earnest. As a simultaneous lover and critic of the Christmas season, this sort of thing really does it for me. I do love it, but in the above review I had to acknowledge its faults. As a big Akira fan and a big Christmas fan, though, I have to say this is definitely going to be spinning all holiday season. Much more interesting, dense and listenable than any Christmas album I’ve heard in years. Highly recommended. 

Based solely as a Yuletide experience, Saturnalia Superman gets a  coveted 4.5/5 baubles. Do with that as you will.  

Akira the Don provides many of his services over the internet: his website is here, and he would love it very much if you’d cop a free listen off the stream, and then buy yourself some copies. 

Originally published right here, December 2011. 

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