Saturday, December 24, 2016

album review: 'STC' by shane the crane

It's almost poetic that we end 2016 like this - not with a huge smash hit album, not with a critically beloved indie darling... but an album from one of you guys, one of my Patrons. I sincerely hope he sticks around now that his album has inched its way up the list organically to land in front of me, especially considering the gloves have never been on - I'm treating this with the same critical I treat everything else, as I've clearly warned many times.

So, Shane The Crane is an electronic music producer that you'd mostly likely find on Soundcloud, but unlike many of those guys he appears to have the backing of a record label Beatdek Records, and from what I can tell this doesn't appear to be a vanity label, it actually has a few artists behind it. From a lot of the blurbs it looked to be skirting the edges of modern popular trends in electronic music with a slightly weirder twist on top - so okay, I'm kind of on board, this could be interesting, so I took a look at his debut project STC - how is it?

Honestly, a little tough to say. I'm definitely not going to say that STC is bad - in fact, and I know this will sound cynical as all hell, but it did exceed my expectations, it's very listenable and I can definitely see an environment where this sort of music will do quite well. But that said... this is one of those cases where I came to electronic music in a way I'm not sure most people did, in that my primary exposure came either from what we hear in the mainstream or some really weird experimental projects. This project I'd argue sits in the middle, and as such it hits a bit of a weird note: not quite as catchy as I'd normally evaluate EDM in the mainstream, but not experimental enough that I'm encountering sounds and styles I've never heard before, which means I'm not sure it's got a high replay value for me, if nobody else.

So okay, what exactly is this project? Basically, we've got nine songs that criss-cross a couple different subgenres of electronic music. You have primarily ambient or downtempo pieces, like the echoing darkness of 'Depression' with its slow sandy percussion or the clicking against the muted pianos of 'Waiting For STC' that eventually breaks into a popping sound, flattered hi-hat effect, and a chiptune-esque noise that I really couldn't stand, all the way to 'The Birth Of STC', which is a simple but melancholic piano composition with hints of strings and thin shifts within the mix that's actually pretty beautiful even as it gives way to a wave of sharper, glossier synths. One thing that is consistent, though, are the sparse-feeling arrangements - even with instrumentation that feels more organ added in like the textured percussion on 'Her Orion' or the clicking, choppy strums on 'Arabic Hippies', that bass kick is nearly always at the front of the mix driving the momentum, and nothing feels wasted or otherwise here when it doesn't need to be. Of course, this is a mixed blessing, especially when it comes to tonal choices, because when this record slips towards material that's less organic or more trap flavoured or even just sound effects I don't like, there's absolutely nothing to distract from it. For instance, while I don't mind some of the drippier effects that pepper this record on a song like 'Goo' and I do understand why the baby noises fit, that squealing pieces that ascends up the scale against the snares and stuttering nursery box twinkles didn't click for me at all on an other side solid piece. It's a similar case for 'Bubble Gum Pop Music', which literally features at its foundation a set of popping noises and a flat vocal sample that just didn't evolve or shift enough in its tone to really connect for me. 'Culture Club' has something similar with its distorted popping vocal samples that are then shifted up and down the scale, but that song also highlights that some of the more interesting organic percussion doesn't exactly have a pickup with a lot of depth - it feels thin, doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the mix.

But if we're looking for a characteristic of this project, it would be how disconnected a lot of these instrumental ideas feel, and really how on the noise they align with the titles of these tracks. With the exception of some flattened pickups and a few moments where the mix depth can deceive you, many of these sounds or progressions sit adjacent to each other in the mix but don't often interact or blur together in a way that suggests a lot of cohesion. And again, that's a blessing or a curse, depending how you look at it: if you like the tones or progressions or you can ride off that harder bass kick, you're going to like it, but when you get a song like 'D220' with that honking vocal sample that plays off a rubbery block of trap percussion with the heavy clap, it really got on my nerves in record time, especially when the most changes that occur within the mix are changes in tempo or rhythm, not precisely melody. That leads to another issue, and that is that these songs don't quite evolve as well as they could. There are changeups, but outside of 'The Birth Of STC', they don't really build to a crescendo or more extensive progression, which doesn't help these songs feel fleshed out, or build more a sense of unique identity for Shane The Crane. That's arguably the element that holds STC back the most: a lot of these pieces feel like solitary ideas, but little in the compositions that will help flow into full-length songs that have a unique instrumental identity. Yes, in tonal choice you get a series of popping noises and squawks that really aren't my thing, but you need more than just tones to flesh out who you are as an electronic artist. 

Or let me put it another way: I can see why some critics have called this more of an EP than an album, because EPs are often intended to get out a stream of ideas without requiring the fully-fleshed out compositions that would comprise a bigger piece, and considering how short much of this project is in terms of the song lengths and overall - it's around thirty-three minutes - it often feels like one. And hey, let me stress this, some of the ideas have promise: the blends of more organic tones with the sharper beats to have swing to them, and with a fuller instrumental pickup I can see there being potential even if its not fully blended, to emphasize that clash. But I also think I'm probably not the best audience for a project like this, and so while I'm giving it a very light 6/10, I encourage more electronically-minded fans to give this a look regardless. It's a sparse project, but an intriguing one, and for a debut, you really can't ask for more than that.

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