Damian Lazarus, Smoke the Monster Out
Get Physical - Germany
Sometimes you get handed a record and you know it's going to be good. I felt that way instantly the moment Damian Lazarus handed over his first artist album; Smoke the Monster Out (for those of you not entrenched in the underground electronic music scene—this means an entire LP dedicated to the artist's original work; as many DJ's merely released live club mixes or remixes). I had only met Damian twice, but his imaginative approach to music and the way he played it; his taste, and his profound understanding of musical sequence (when spinning records live), hooked me line and sinker the first time I heard a mix of his. That very mix (recorded live from DC10 in Ibiza, on John Digweed's show on Kiss FM in London) was recorded at one of my favorite clubs on the planet! Hell, to be honest he could have been mediocre and I would have been drawn into that mix through pure nostalgia, but he is far from mediocre, and this debut album is proof of that.
Smoke the Monster Outt is one of those albums that takes the genre of which it is classified, or housed in your local record shop (yes, we do actually have some here in Los Angeles) and puts the genres' ideals, rules, pretentions, and commonalities into a freakin' blender in order to try and create something original. That's the biggest challenge artists face in music, not just in electronic music; finding a way to create from the gut and express your inspirations, rather than merely creating a facsimile of their sound. Lazarus has crafted an electronic journey that is masterful; dark and whimsical (yet fluid and harmonious), something you can listen to after the club, before the club, or on a Sunday afternoon while doing household chores. It's fluid and textural, which could be attributed to the fact that while much of this album is symphonic, there are organic elements as well; by way of acoustic instruments (actual strings and piano for examples). Lazarus has a keen ear and manages to blend his electronic roots with acoustic compositions; creating engaging mixtures of light and dark sounds.
There is also a surprising thread of varied musical flavors on Smoke the Monster Out, which makes it hard to pigeon hole. Perhaps that is the point, and believe me it has not been easy; trying to pick the right vocabulary to properly describe the sonic magic in this album. Think early Bjork (her timeless Debut), 80's Kraftwerk (Electric Café), Burial, and reflections of Morcheeba, then mix all that up and add a dose of tech-house beats and pop sensibilities. The title track, which kicks off the record, sounds like the sort of dark and twisted score/electro-symphony you may hear at the beginning of a modern science fiction movie. It really sets the mood for something huge and black, but alas, the next song; "Moment" sounds more Damian Rice than Daft Punk. Here we have that dark to light blend I mentioned above; in an instant the mood of the record changes. "Moments" gentle acoustic piano strokes and child-like lyrical delivery immediately lets the listener know this isn't monotonous music aimed at 3:00am dance floors.
Damian brings the mood back into the depths on "Memory Box." Vintage synths and acid house stabs surround the infectiously gloomy chorus "I don't like this game, trying to remember your name". "Don't recall what you said, my memory box is dead." Just when you think you're going to be kept in that dreary sonic basement, Lazarus unlocks the brightness again, this time with more playful lyrics on the short "King of Fools." He does this often throughout the entire album; yin yangs you with pounding, warped bass and hard-hitting kickdrums, only to let you down softly with short, poppy interludes. "Come and Play" is the reason for the Bjork comparison. The vocals drift in and out of this warbling bass line, sounding a bit like The Sugar Cubes.
"Diamond in the Dark" exemplifies the constant musical transition (from light to dark that is, as well as electronic to acoustic) that makes this album such an interesting listen. Here the sound jumps from shadowy, wide-open atmospheric noise to Syd Barrett/classic Pink Floyd style vocals (complete with dreamy guitar). The addition of quirky, broken beat transitions in the song put a truly original stamp on Lazarus's compositions. In electronic music this is no easy task; carving out your own signature. This marriage of differing moods and sounds continues throughout the entire album. "After Rave Delight" tells a common story (coming home from a Rave after being up all night dancing) through warm, resonant tones that sound like the thick metal strings on an old music box (the ones you pluck). The airy guitar licks that bring the album to a close are reminiscent of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side", a brilliant accompaniment, and a splendid way to draw the curtains on the album.
Damian Lazarus has taken his obviously varied influences and produced an album that is as much fun as it is interesting. Thankfully the album sounds damn good too. I wasn't surprised when I was told that Damian mixed the album down on Konrad "Conny" Planks (Kraftwerks producer) own mixing desk; supposedly he built the console himself—it was used to capture Kraftwerk's Autobahn. Can you imagine getting to mix a record on that desk? I am admittedly jealous—for the record. On a serious note: Smoke the Monster Out has found a home on my current reference discs list, and that is perhaps the best compliment I can give the effort. The album is dynamic and spacious with tightly defined bass and coherent mids and highs. The very top end may be rolled off slightly, but it didn't bother me in the least. If you're into electronic music that is heart-felt (and not melodically drone-like) I highly recommend you find a copy of Smoke the Monster Out. I don't think you'll be disappointed. I'll be getting more for my good friends, no doubt.
For this album I did some listening on the main reference system, as well as a ton of headphone listening via my JHAudio JH'13's, driven by Headroom's Total Bithead (USB DAC and headphone amp) and the StyleAudio TOPAZ (USB DAC & headphone). The results were tremendous on all three little systems, which is not common with new releases these days. The sound here is exceptional.