ChiaroscuroI Break Horses sophomore album, “Chiaroscuro”, Italian for contrasting light and dark, is a very multi-layered and somewhat intense affair. Thick with manic hi-hats, synths and stereo-centric effects, melodies, when they do appear, are strong and compelling but half of the album forsakes this dominant foreboding mood, representing the extremes of the title in a way. “Hearts”, I Break Horses debut album, was released in 2011 and was also a thick and textured, atmospheric electronic album but was also significantly more optimistic and in many ways accessible than this follow up. There were also songs on their first album, only a couple, admittedly, that you could dance to and although “Chiaroscuro” contains tracks that may inspire you to move, there is nothing here that will leave you dehydrated.

Swedish electronic music is seemingly dominated by female singers making pop music which is beautiful, ten steps ahead of their European neighbours and both sad and joyous; Robyn is their leader. Maria Linden and Fredrik Balck relate to both the beauty and sadness but these Swedes have more in common with artists from the US label Italians Do It Better such as Chromatics and Glass Candy with Linden’s sweet but depressed, sometimes dead-eyed, delivery replicating the female leads of these groups. Musically, recent releases from School of Seven Bells and Nigel Godrich group Ultraista come close with their rave-punctuated, electronic disco for introverts but I Break  Horses are often far more distant and harder to know.

“Chiarascuro” starts with the noir-like dramatic, piano-led, “You Burn”, a strong and slowly thumping Italian disco-influenced lead that doesn’t sound like any other song here. The next three tracks amplify the energy significantly and successfully and with “Denial”, the best of the trio, Linden’s dreamy vocals are initially attacked by stun guns, stuttering like a Stock, Aitken and Waterman twelve-inch and surrounded by syndrums that aren’t retro sounding but fresh and darkly pop. It really does sound great and, yes, sad and beautiful. The second half of the album does not replicate the first though. Linden and Balck have a distinct ability to create instant and exciting music but they then decide to pull back from this.  With tracks like the seven minute, funereal “Medicine Brush” (with very Julee Cruise falsetto vocals thankfully adding some respite), the overly sombre “Berceuse” and out of focus, both melodically and sonically, “Disclosure” all reinforcing the sense of nothing really happening over a long (feeling) period of time. All is not lost though and album latecomer “Weigh True Words” reignites the spark and distortion of the earlier tracks and with its repetitious but thrilling house percussion and brilliant chorus, it’s the best tune of the album.

Ultimately “Chiaroscuro” is a somewhat uneven collection of nine tracks; the longer songs need to be shorter and vice-versa .  The stronger poppier melodies can be frustratingly buried and, at nearly eight minutes long, the art-doom of “Heart to Know” is just very hard going indeed. Listen to this on a decent set of headphones though and there is still a lot of pleasure to be had and the humour in some of the diseased-sounding short synth motifs and computer game effects are thrilling. It may still be difficult to really understand what Maria Lindén is actually singing about but the lyrics aren’t the most important thing here. I Break Horses is really about mood and the album title is a clue to the strong contrast between the two sides of the album, the light may be under-represented but the point where the two collide can be dazzling.

Ok, you weren’t expecting to find Noel Coward here were you?  Well, it’s about time you had some proper culture instead of all that pop music nonsense.  In the play “Private Lives”, the character Amanda has the memorable line “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”, which has been quoted virtually everywhere.  The broadsheets love to give pop thinkpieces an intellectual feel by throwing this one in, but there’s a whole new slant on it now.  Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich (and a few others) are having hissy fits about the financial returns from Spotify, but they’re missing the real target by a country mile.

The problem isn’t that consumers are only willing to pay a small amount for music.  Most of the traditional teenage pop/rock/r’n’b (add your own genre as applicable) music consumers have grown up with the assumption that music is free if you know where to look for it, so why would you ever pay for it?  Things used to be really simple; you heard a song on the radio (or in a club) or read about it in the NME and went to your local music shop and bought it on 7” vinyl, 12” vinyl, cassette or CD, depending on your age.  The record company took a huge slice of the profit, but the artist got paid, particularly if they had a good lawyer and they wrote the song.  The music business panicked in the seventies over home taping, but still pushed the development of digital technology in the eighties not realising they were opening a can of particularly fat, juicy worms.

Digital recording and processing; you can make and keep perfect copies of everything and there’s no degradation no matter how many generations of copies you make.  No more tapes or master discs to worry about storing (or having stolen by the band when they don’t like the mix or don’t think their piece of the action is big enough).  And then the realisation dawned that if Sony (other labels are available) could make perfect copies, then it was only a matter of time before some under-nourished geek in a bedroom in Dollis Hill worked out how to crack the code and make their own perfect copy, which they generously circulated around the world with that new internet thing.  And they were actually complicit in the process when they got behind recordable formats such as Minidisc and Digital Compact Cassette (ask your dad, kids).

Of course it was easy to do a quick and dirty remaster for CD on all of your back catalogue and get the punters to pay to hear them again with a clarity you promised they wouldn’t believe.  Have you heard some of those early remasters?  Some of them are actually painful to listen to, but we bought into it and duplicated our vinyl with CDs.  But the physical CD market was quite healthy because the audio files were massive and transfer speeds on the internet were painfully slow.  So, there would only be a problem if someone worked out a way of speeding up the internet and making audio files much smaller; that wasn’t going to happen, was it?  MP3 and broadband sorted that one out with a little help from those lovely people at Apple and soon we were downloading MP3s as well.

Of course the music industry tried to defend itself with copyright protection systems (which didn’t work) and litigation (which also didn’t work), so we’re in a position now where creativity has virtually no value.  Bands are being asked to pay to play in venues, musicians are being asked for permission to use their work in films for free (for the exposure value) and music writers and photographers are working for peanuts.  It couldn’t get any worse, could it?

Of course it could.  In a typical “four legs good, two legs better” move, the music industry is showing an interest in Neil Young’s PONO full-fat, uncompressed music delivery system (which Shakey’s been trying to flog for years now, with no success) after years of squeezing sound files as small as you can to get them to sound good on an MP3 player or a phone.  It’s CD all over again; if this system ever makes it to the market, then it’s an opportunity to persuade the small market sector that still believes in paying for music to shell out for their favourite albums yet again.  But we won’t get fooled again, will we?

UltraistaA remix album that surpasses the original recording is a rarity indeed. For a relatively small scale, indie electronic band like Ultraista it feels perfunctory to issue one at some point and along with contemporaries such as Au Revoir Simone and Lali Puna, as well as big hitters like Bjork and Lady Gaga, the thing they all have in common is wildly varying levels of success and are all too often the ultimate exercise in self- indulgence.

Ultraista’s self-titled album, from which the remixers all derive their source material, was released last October and considering the enticing concept of Thom Yorke’s right hand man, Nigel Godrich, making female vocal lead electronica, the actual reception was not entirely ecstatic. It was glitchy and introverted, not necessarily intended on occasion I’m sure and partly due to Laura Bettinson’s vocals often being quietly pushed back into the mix, which undermined the impact of some of the stronger melodies. The main problem of what is still an interesting and thoughtful album is that, apart for the trip (predominantly) hop of slowed down “Party Line”, it was an album with little variation of beat, rhythm or structure. This album then is the ideal companion piece, bringing out the necessary colour and bite.

All ten of the original songs get a new treatment and unlike many other remix excursions there aren’t six versions of one particular track leading to repetitive ear strain injury early on (there are additional versions on the digital version though), with the majority thankfully not exceeding the five minute mark. “Smalltalk (Four Tet)” may stutter and rattle enthusiastically but the melody which was previously implied but not exploited now shines through and “Party Line(Canon Blue)” brings Bettinson’s vocal out of hiding and makes it a tight, bright thrill; the same applies to the now delightfully menacing “Easier (Zammuto)”.

“Static Light”, always one of their strongest tracks, was originally swamped by synths and drones and now Matthew Herbert turns it into a buzzing, tumbling pop rush reminiscent of his more major production work with Bjork and Roisin Murphy. Oddly now becoming better known as a prolific remixer (how exactly did this happen?) than a film director, David Lynch brilliantly turns the averagely competent “Strange Formula” into a dusty and scuzzy blues drawl. “Bad Insect” and “Our Song” don’t fare as well, being overwrought drum and bass and blissed out coffee table respectively, but two out of ten ain’t bad.

In many ways a template for the successful remix project, Ultraista have proved that there is still life in what is a really a marketing tool if quality control is paramount and the DNA of the original material remains; this is certainly the case here. This collection is cohesive and thoughtfully complied and if it in fact had been released in this format, it might have succeeded in making a stronger impression than the original recordings themselves. As it stands, the remixers have done an exceptional job in exposing Ultraista as the dynamic, quietly foreboding band that they have the potential to be.