Anjunadeep 09 Review
The fog fades, a year goes by, Anjunadeep 09 is released in the cold of October.
Last year I declared that the deep electronic music label Anjunadeep had cemented its new direction and future vision with the release of their 8th double-disc compilation: Anjunadeep 08. The album released well, Anjunadeep and its key creators have been growing in success and I have enjoyed the 2016 album again and again. It’s easily one of their finer compilations and unlike so many other of their albums. The pacing issues on the second disc kinda wear off with enough listens. That may not be an excuse for the issues I brought up with my Anjunadeep 08 review, but the flaws certainly feel minuscule in the presence of such a great collection of overall good tracks put together in such a splendid way.
The label has done so well in the past year that during Above & Beyond’s first ever official “Group Therapy Festival”, Anjunadeep took up roughly half of the lineup across two days. While Above & Beyond may be continuing changes for a stronger western appeal instead of the world-wide focus they once had, Anjunadeep’s work feels like it barely needs to translate itself. They definitely went through some changes across 2015–2016 to figure out what particular sound they want to pursue for the foreseeable future while tech house decides to never leave the limelight. But I really think part of why Anjunadeep translates and eases into western culture so well might have to do with how heavily that sound is refined for its albums to present a collection of music. Modern-day “EDM” or the modernized trance sounds (or…just about anything running at 127 beats per minute or higher) can range from moody progressive house to anthemic jump-fests and include anything like electro house, dubstep, or psy-trance. And Above & Beyond and Anjunabeats are a lot more interested in examining that whole broad spectrum of sound. Sure, the refinement has focused on “modern trance”, which has leaned a little closer to progressive house lately, but Above & Beyond and the Anjunabeats label can release anything from big-room stompers like “Higher Love” by Jason Ross & Seven Lions to 80s revivalist progressive synthy pieces by GRUM to simplistic vocal electronic pieces like “Another Chance” by Above & Beyond themselves. For an average American, the entirety of “Anjunabeats” can mean three or twelve different things. Some of the Anjunabeats albums even feature many tracks that get released on Anjunadeep instead. Meanwhile, Anjunadeep is Anjunadeep. They sound like what they release, they work hard to define that sound that they release, and it seems to really be paying off for them each year with growth.
So in the wake of multiple new rising stars (Luttrell, Yotto, Lycoriscoris, Tontario, Gacha Bakradze, Aiiso, etc.) and a successful new sound and image portrayed in last year’s album release, what should Anjunadeep do now with this year’s album work? There’s less pressure to define the new sound, the talent is making great stuff that the label is going to release in the next year, and they’re going to remain relevant in ways so long as Above & Beyond remain relevant. So what else is there to do for Anjunadeep 09? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that label heads James and Jody didn’t have to put a lot of work into this compilation to get it out the door. I’m not saying AD 09 is a lazy job, but it certainly doesn’t feel like something that’s been poured over with painstaking love and attention to detail like AD 04, 05, 06, and 08. And I hope that by the end of this review, my harshness towards its flaws doesn’t seem malicious. I’ll start with the element that I think is always most critical to any compilation because it’s the core component of what a compilation is: The tracks.
Anjunadeep 09 has plenty of great tracks, and so far it seems like this may be the largest compilation released by the label, to date, to feature such a high majority of all-exclusive tracks, many of them unreleased still. The heavy hitters have all returned. Tontario appears to be bringing some more of his atmosphere and pensive sounds with “Ambivalens” and his remix of “Angel Wings”. Dusky’s recent release “Square Miso” makes an appearance. Lycoriscoris sets some moods on each disc. And Luttrell is past the point of warming up to be another “Yotto” (and no, that’s not an insult). While the San Francisco producer only had one track on AD 08, Luttrell was already building up a strong catalog of tracks that were layered across 2017 with splendor. Luttrell’s “Contact” is one of the few Anjunadeep tracks released ahead of this compilation to feature on it due to its incredible central and climactic nature. It’s well placed, it feels great, and so do his other tracks “Wake Me Up Tomorrow” and “What You Are”. Aiiso, Yotto, and label veteran Martin Roth all deserve some words but I have to move on because there’s also those tracks by newcomers who have absolutely floored me.
Compuphonic shares a brief 3 minutes on disc 1 to show off one of the grooviest piano and bass sounds I’ve heard since maybe 2014’s “Cassioepia” by Kolsch. But instead of somber or beauty strings, Compuphonic goes for straight-up fun with that track “Medicis”. Meanwhile, SQL has a clicky, groovy remix on SOHN’s “Lights” that’s very much worth a listen. The acidic and textured bassline paired against higher vocals on Antic’s “Touch of My Souls” randomly infected my mind’s ears a month after hearing it. It’s one of the few truer “progressive house” tracks on the compilation and deserves more attention than I initially gave it. I’m also not going to be forgetting the amazing build-up and well timed starry release of Gallago’s “Lost Signal” anytime soon. It’s a delightful treat I want to hear again and again. But it’s a delightful treat that deserves to be paired off with tracks that befit it more. And it’s there, half-way through disc 2 that’s AD 09’s main “problem” becomes apparent, even though it’s been there since disc 1.
Anjunadeep 09’s worst enemy may be its own pacing and structure and how it wrestles with itself on this subject matter. Here’s a slightly-lengthy rundown of how this compilation feels on disc 1: Things start off cold and murky on disc 1 before “Square Miso” starts, which is one brief four minute down-tempo environment of relaxation, and then the mix sticks to 20 minutes of moody atmospherics bordering dark and meditative. Then the mix does a near hard cut explosive push into Luttrell’s “Wake Me Up Tomorrow”. The incoming track at that moment is mixed in with less sneaky precision than is common in other AD mixes but it really more feels at odds with the five tracks that came before it. “Tonally jarring” is one way to put it. That whiplash of mood and club music sensibility is a reasonable move so long as the switch from one approach to another has purpose and reason behind it. Here it feels like an excuse to get the two groovy colorful tracks out of the way in the middle of the mix. After “Medicis” plays, Aiiso’s “Gravity” and “Drifting Spring” by Kieran Apter & Leon Power move moods downwards again, Aiiso’s track is foreboding, Keiran Apter & Leon Power are groovy and more silent. These tracks I think are supposed to be providing brief respite from the exciting tracks by Compuphonic and Luttrell that trailed behind them but those two upbeat numbers were 8 minutes total in a mix that’s been mostly a slow progression into “the meat of the mix” from the start.
Dusky’s “Square Miso” practically felt like it belonged as an outro elsewhere on one of these CDs. Tracks 14–17 are long, atmospheric, and loopy. At times they take up too much time for the limited substance they provide as it’s during these longer reptitive tracks that the more quick, talented, and smart editing cuts are made to transition into the next track. It makes no sense, why not do these sort of quick and careful edits to the shorter tracks played earlier so they all blend together instead of feeling like harsh distinct pieces? Meanwhile, give more intense, complicated, and layered transition elements to the longer pieces. By the time the climax track “Contact” is reached, it feels unrewarding, it doesn’t feel like we built up to this mountain-top experience like AD 08 did with “Fire Walk” by Yotto. That brilliant moment was properly achieved and James and Jody properly reveled in it by letting that energy sustain the first disc for another 18 minutes (and it worked!). “Contact” is so out of its zone, it lasts 4 minutes, and “Night Lights” by Croquet Club fades the first mix out 3 minutes later. This problem is all over the compilation. The tracks feel out of place or oddly grouped together, creating the sense that the album lacks tonal cohesion in pieces and the whole.
Track groups in Anjunadeep 09— Disc 2:
1–3, 4, 5–9, 10–11, 12, 13, 14–17, 18–19
I think this problem can be accredited to a couple things. From a structural standpoint, I really think it’s just the track arrangements causing the brunt of the damage. Generally, tracks in Anjunadeep 09 either belong to 20 minutes of a progression in atmosphere, or they exist alone, a standout piece with the tracks before and after it carrying little association to it. This makes the compilation a matter of track quantity and the quality of the individual tracks, which is fine in this case because many of the tracks are good or great. But the mixes and the concept of this as an “album” lacks wholeness here as the pieces just don’t go together in the way they’re arranged, hence the striking tonal shifts. It ultimately feels like this compilation would be a lot more interesting if built in a different order. Meanwhile, for example, Anjunadeep 08 is oftentimes making track groupings of 2, 3, 4, or even 6. If you map it out, the tracks that feel more “alone” or without a group often exist as interlude pieces from one (typically larger) group of tracks into the next. And those transitions are short. This is actually something I complained about last year with AD 08, here’s a quote from the review:
Some tracks are less than 2 minutes long in this compilation to fit the cut of 2 discs. And it makes one wonder if it was really necessary to squeeze this much content in when there’s not enough time to truly appreciate it.
How silly to realize a year later that trying to do the opposite when the tracks don’t mix from one group into the next turns things into a bit of a failed mixture. Anjunadeep 08’s “flaw” is actually a smart and reliable tool to flow the mix properly.
Track groups in Anjunadeep 08 — Disc 1:
1, 2–4, 5–10, 11, 12–13, 14, 15–18
It’s maddeningly incoherent when the mix is built to contradict itself instead of flow together. But I think this is really the tip of the (honestly) not that large iceberg. While taking notes on Anjunadeep 09, I wrote down a little side comment: “Since when did AD mixes become about DJ prowess to the specialty of the mix?” The complaint I was lodging here is that Anjunadeep 09 feels like James & Jody are spending more time trying to make a cohesive album out of the label’s output instead of just making a damn good collection of music mixed with careful precision. I also made a side note to this comment in my notebook: “Since AD07 apparently.”
Shortly after Anjunadeep 09 came out, this cool interview “documentary” went out in which James Grant details the journey and experiences of leaving a career in law and moving into the reality he lives now. It’s well worth a watch and helps paint a broad picture of how Anjunadeep has grown in success in the past few years and how James Grant has (seemingly) been a lot of the hard work behind that success.
But about twelve minutes into this video I heard words that more or less voiced exactly what I think is the problem with Anjunadeep 09 and how that may have happened. James essentially says that the label has hit this super talent patch recently where they have so much great music coming to them they’re not sure how they’re going to get it all out the door in time. The answer, of course, is through Anjunadeep 09, it’s a big compilation in the end. It has 36 tracks on it, almost all of the tracks are label exclusives, and most of this stuff hasn’t come out in the past year. I was going to write a bit of a complaint about how Yotto’s very-recent “North” track wasn’t used in this compilation but the reality is that “North” came from an EP Yotto was working on before Anjunadeep 08 launched (we know this because a track from the “North EP” is on Anjunadeep 08).
The reality is that the Anjunadeep label has a lot of music to put out and James and Jody are trying to juggle cohesive compilation mixes that are a wee-bit artistic and also get all the big spotlight pieces on those same compilations. And this is where that whole “DJ prowess” remark rang eerily true: The video also features James talking about the tragic loss of his sister in 2015, the year Anjunadeep 07 came out, the compilation James personally considers the first AD album that hits the sort of artistic balance between “compilation mix” and “personal creation” (even when the mixes are made up of music by other people). I can dish out discussions about AD 07’s flaws but it makes oh so much sense that AD 07 has so many similar, odd, striking pacing qualities that we see today in AD 08 and 09. Back in 2015, those pacing oddities and momentary interludes felt odd and off but in 2016 they felt nigh perfect. This mostly has to do with the strength of the individual tracks as I mentioned before. AD 07’s “pacing” is well put except in the presence of ultimately monotone tracks in its second mix. AD 08 doens’t face this problem as it has a very large variety of tones and sounds. This year, a new problem rears its head: Too many tracks, not enough time to put something together, or maybe not enough time spent assembling. This is all speculation, but I’d say that Anjunadeep 09 is what happens when James & Jody have so much good music to put in their “semi-artistic album mixes” that they wind up spending less time thinking about how the tracks go together or that each track gets ample time to show off. They instead (possibly) devoted more time making sure they have the tracks they want (or can get) on the compilation.
This is the part where I feel the need to sit and complain about changes and be a little cruel to James & Jody’s work, who must really love what they’re doing with the compilations because 07, 08, and 09 all do feel “unified”. Anjunadeep 05 is my favorite of the bunch. It’s a fulfilling, well-paced, well-curated musical journey that doesn’t try too hard. It remembers an important credo: The mix is about the music. The tracks in compilations 01–06 are almost all fully developed, there’s no fast “2 minute interludes” there, the music and what it offers is well picked and savored because of it. Compilations like Anjunadeep 04, 05, and 06 are the very things that inspired my own mixshow (and still do today). 07, 08, 09 don’t follow those principles, they instead follow the credo: The mix is about the album. And we’ve seen that feasibly done with Anjunadeep 08, but with 07 and 09 (sorry James & Jody), we instead have a scattering of good or great tracks in the midst of an attempt to create something. Trying to build a full mix album with a picturesque experience is clearly not so easy instead of looking at what paints you have and building a picture off of that.
Anjunadeep is, in my book, a great label. And the Anjunadeep albums, at their best, ensure that personal vision isn’t getting in the way of building a mix that lets the music shine through. James and Jody deserve all the credit they get for assembling, curating, and mixing these compilations and running this stellar label. But if they’re going to build an album of their own out of the works of others, I recommend spending a lot of time curating and refining. I really want to express that I want them to keep at it. Anjunadeep 08 came out nearly a year and a half after 07, with delays aplenty. The end result is wonderful. I can only wonder what Anjunadeep 09 would’ve been if it spent another two months in development. For what it’s worth, if you don’t pick up every Anjunadeep release on the market, this $10 compilation is a great value for hearing some upcoming amazing tunes. And because I think the label deserves your time and money: I recommend it.
Last nitpick, I promise: I do feel kinda bummed though that there’s no digital booklet for this compilation like so many before it have had. It makes me wonder how rushed / to the last minute this compilation was. Seriously, if there’s ever a label whose compilation tracks deserve a little bit of flavor text and preamble, it’s this one. Please bring it back next year.