zondag 31 mei 2015

Album Review: Orkidea - Harmonia [June 2015]

*Dusts off blog* It's been a while since I last posted here so it's time to bring this joint back to life. And what better way than to do so with review for one of Trance music's greatest-though-most-underrated Champions? His last album was released in 2011 and celebrated 20 years of his craftsmanship and passion for dance music. It featured gems such as "Beautiful (Orkidea's Whiteout Remix)", "Slowmotion II", "Pacifique" and of course the incredibly simple-but-effective "Lifetime Warranty". Since then he's brought his cinematic, Retro-flavored soundscapes through his 13-minute masterpiece Remix of the highly anticipated re-occuring Slowmotion collaboration series with fellow Trance Legend Solarstone; his funky out-of-the-box team-up with Milla Lehto called "Game On"; his trademark rework of Paul Oakenfold's Classic Southern Sun and some various other goodies.

Now, reaching the midway point of 2015, he brings "Harmonia", his fourth studio album. The teaser has been out for about two weeks now and today I finally sat down with my pre-order of Orki's longplayer. The expectations are high... Can Harmonia live up to the standard of its predecessor which for me personally marked an important counter movement against the Trousification of the scene? Let's find out!

01. Orkidea - My Sunset
We have a distinct percussive line introducing the album opener. The moment the unmistakable 4x4 beat kicks in, it's accompanied by a deep bassline just oozing relaxing vibes. There are some slick reverbing claps in this opening phase, giving me a slight Benno de Goeij feel. A Spoken Word style female voice starts talking, very reminiscent to certain '90s Trancers. These kind of narrative vocals are a 50-50 situation for me: sometimes they enhance the track for the better, sometimes they annoy me altogether. In this case, the vocalist gets it right though. What a soothing opening journey: rich melodic textures but balanced out so well > Orki's mastery of dreamy vibes hasn't rusted one bit. If this is a sign of what's to come, we are in for a REAL treat here. Bring the next one, this was perf- ! Holy sh*t, 04:15 minute mark! Those sudden epic stringpads! :O Oh hoho, Tapio means business, folks! What a start!

02. Orkidea - Dreamers Of Dreams
Being a "Dreamer" myself (heck, had a track titled that way when I tried to make an album back in 2011), I have high expectations for this one. There's a very laidback funky vibe going on in that build-up and two minutes in Orki unleashes his trademark Trancey pads for that maximum Dreamy effect... Being tired from work and seated in this oh-so-comfortable "chill zone" whilst listening (long live beds), I am headbopping to this tune in a state of Sweet Serenity... Marvelous job done Tapio & Petri! Four minutes in a 2nd breakdown reveals itself and we get a bit more pad-driven bliss before the sudden end... Me gusta.

03. Orkidea feat. Ben Lord - Neo Romance
First vocal of the album, a male one. In Trance music I rarely like male vocals (there are always exceptions buuuuuut...); let's see where this goes. Build-up phase reminds me of Moonbeam back in the 2007 era. The lead that guides this phase of the track is very similar to the proggy tunes of that era. After two minutes we are smoothly guided into the breakdown, it's introduced by a rising deep "Coldharbour" saw. A sudden, trademark Orkidea riff is revealed, much to my surprise! It's a type of riff that could very well have suited a more anthemic track, for its overall progressive vibe, the riff is pretty energetic, but not over the top. In the end this turns out to be a cool track: the vocal doesn't get annoying and the overall mood is a bit more... Contemplating compared to the "hedonistic" dreamy vibe of the first two. Two great openers and a solid third, so far so good, Tapsa!

04. Orkidea - P:Machinery
Now things are getting groovy! The most powerful bassline of the four tracks we have had so far, there is some cool stuttering synthwork going on in the breakdown that already reveals this is more of a dancefloor-oriented track. Mechanic vocals speak simultaneously to a melodic lead which causes a strange clashing effect which I like. Slowly the track reveals its main melody with a hint of Above & Beyond style euphoria (though less over-the-top) when two-and-a-half minutes in this extra powerful lead joins the fray. This is one way how I like my Trance: a proper, simple melody, backed by variations through various synth sounds that slowly swell in harmony. No uplifting cliches or melody-less psy nonsense or full-out Bigroom garbage. A stuttering (and slightly techy) lead swells and is unleashed at the climax. You can tell this one is more geared towards the dancefloor but it does so in a classy way, never over-the-top or too raw. The right balance of cool synths and a nice melody. Very nice!

05. Orkidea - Revolution Industrielle
Orki's personal retouch of Jean Michel-Jarre's original! You might have encountered this one a couple of months back as it was released as the second appetizer for the Harmonia album, following Purity. What to say about this one? Maybe I should start off by saying that I was unfamiliar with JMJ's work until my birthay this year. In that month I received his Oxygene and Equinoxe albums and afterwards I purchased Zoolook and Chronology. These albums have been inspirational, both as a(n electronic dance) music fanatic and as an amateur producer. Every big (former-)Trance name giving credit to JMJ as a pioneer do this on completely legitimate grounds as far as I'm concerned. What's interesting about this Orkidea rework is that if you compare Orkidea's cinematic Trance style to JMJ's rich, highly detailed compositions you could say that Tapio is a bit of a JMJ for Trance music in regards to the work he puts in every individual sound effect and the overall melodicness of his tunes. In that sense, there is no other name out there better capable of making JMJ's original fit for the Trance-driven dancefloors. I wouldn't rank this a Top 30 contender myself, as I find it slightly missing that X-factor from for instance Slowmotion I & Slowmotion III (Orkidea Remix) but it's still a very nice track. Speaking of Slowmotion...

06. Solarstone & Orkidea - Slowmotion III
...there she is! The third installment was finally revealed to us last year, following up the melancholic sadder Slowmotion II from 2011 (which, interestingly enough, was also inspired by a JMJ original as I discovered through Ericc B) and the highly energetic Slowmotion I from 2008 (which remains my personal fave to date). The original seemed more focussed on a groovy dancefloor approach whereas Orki's 13-minute masterpiece remix (have to admit it did have to grow on me to reach that level of appreciation) seemed to have been created for the avid listener rather than the eager dancer. I'd rank the original of Slowmo III underneath II whereas I'd rank Orki's remix slightly above II. I'd say skip this album version and get your hands on the original right away!

07. Orkidea feat. Sami Uotila - Strange World
Uh oh! Be careful Tapsa... You might just piss off a certain Trance Legend if he saw you use the same title as he did in the '90s! Trolling aside, this is by far the nastiest track so far, nearly has an Electro-Trance edge to it (feels almost 2007-2008ish, albeit different). The second vocal and once again it's a male one. It's pretty catchy though, and in the build-up it works very well. In the breakdown however, it scratches the surface of annoying. Maybe not annoying ala Ben Lost / Jonathan Mendelsohn (though Mendel can fit on a House tune > as evidenced by Jody Wisternoff's Trails We Blaze album) but it's still very "risky". Near the climax Tapio decides to go Big Angry Saws on us. Dunno why but I am slightly reminded of Above & Beyond's Walter White from two years back. Strange World has the most modern Dance music influences of everything I've heard so far. Though I am not trying to be a nagging Purist (heck, I was a sucker for the Electro/Tech Trance wave of 2006-2008), this has to be my least favorite track so far. It's not edgy enough to merely rely on its Bigroom elements and by far not Trancey enough to rely on sentiment. I wouldn't call it a bad track but imo it's the weakest of the album up till this point. Let's see what the next one will bring.

08. Orkidea & Lowland - Glowing Skies
OMG *groupy scream* It's the collaboration with Lowland! Who remembers Masochrist from Orki's Metaverse (2008) album? That was a SICK tune! Captivating and menacing... And Lowland's Cheap Shrink from a while back ago also received my tender replay button luvin'. Sadly this one doesn't have half the haunting/dramatic feeling of those two gems :( There is a vocal in it I don't consider a necessary addition and production-wise it's not the epic, haunted ride I was hoping for. Even if you consider its more euphoric or Trance-typical vibe, I hardly feel more excited about it. Goes to show how having specific expectations can bite you in the butt... :( Alongside the previous one, this track will probably leave me a bit indifferent in the coming album replays... Aw well. It can't be Christmas everyday, can it?

09. Orkidea - Nana
Thugging synths and slamming drums followed by a firm bassline... Where will this one take us, I wonder?! Near the second minute mark we are gently introduced to some ethnic (African?) chanting. Some nice pads follow with some slick tribal percussion in the background. Now THIS puts a smile on the face (are my ancestral-continental roots calling me?). This monotone, funky synthline continues to build into a climax backed mostly by the tribal beats (GAWD I love tribal beats!) as the chants return and the breakdown melody gently swells in the background near the track's final phase. Is it a mindblower? No. Been done before? Yup. But does it work? Hell yeah! Solid, feel-good tune that pulls the album's level back to the level of the first half.

10. Orkidea - Redemption
Whoa, for a minute I though we were going to get an Emmanuel Top - Warning (Top Gear Radio Edit) rework! I hear some Platipus-styled acid layers alongside haunting, slightly chopped(?) choir vox. In the breakdown I hear someone who sounds like the mr. Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. If it's him, it's cool. I really digged him in Leon Bolier's Vengeance Vengeance four years back. The main lead follows the haunting pattern of the initial choir vox, backed by an Electro-bassline after the climax. Though the track started off interesting, it kinda lacks a strong enough vibe after the breakdown to pay for that promise of a dramatic/epic main part. A decent tune in the end but not the most outstanding track on the album imo.

11. Orkidea - Purity
Purity was released by the end of last year and I have to say I found it rather weak... Listening to it now for maybe the 8th time or so hasn't changed my opinion. I REALLY like the cleanness and level of detail to the separate elements but as a whole I find it a bit too repetitive... And not in the positive sense. Whereas Orki's melodies and progressions usually appeal to me a lot, Purity just doesn't manage to entice me. I don't know why really, maybe I should hear it live to re-evaluate its score but if a purely dancefloor-oriented tune like Orki's Game On collaboration from a while back can captivate me, you'd expect Purity to pull that off with ease... Maybe I'm getting ill but for me this is among the weakest tracks of the album. Sorry Tapsa!

12. Orkidea & Activa - Z21
DAMN THAT BASSLINE MEANS BUSINESS! Powerful rolling bassline and highly enhanced vocal chops are the first things this collab reveals to us. Orki's trademark flanged build-up ingredients slowly mix in for a captivating start. The breakdown is introduced with drums similar to those in Orki's interpretation of Slowmotion III (love those cinematic drums, they tend to create an epic feeling) when this gorgeous melody on magnificent pads swell into my eardrums alongside those chopped vox I just mentioned. Great stuff! The climax sadly goes into that "Psy" styled minimal mode with just the kick and bassline. I am pretty sure this kicks ass live but at home you kinda hope for more. It's a shame the track seems to build-up again from this point albeit faster as it gives the illusion that the breakdown melody is about to appear backed by the beat but sadly it doesn't as the track is just 05:13 minutes long. Aaargh, you almost had me grinning from ear-to-ear! Still, this one is deffo getting more replays > very good energy!

13. Orkidea & Guiseppe Ottaviani - North Star
I am not the biggest GO fan (I'd sooner state the opposite) whilst I do consider myself an admirer of Orkidea's work. A collab between both was going to be another cagey 50-50 affair. But as we head into the breakdown I breathe a sigh of relief as the Chance O'Meter tilts to the positive green half. A pretty oldskool Trance Riff is revealed and after the climax the highly energetic bassline combines very well. I am glad this Clash Of The Titans turns out okay! Kudos to mr. Ottaviani too btw, this is the second track alongside his Winkee - Awakening Remix I've liked so much (consider the last time I liked anything GO before that was his brilliant remix for Y68 from 2006. Ouch). Extra points for the returning wicked melody at the end of the track that opens the breakdown > wicked stuff!

14. Orkidea - Harmonia
Wait a minute! Didn't all the online tracklist state there were 13 tracks on this album? We actually get an unexpected 14th?? Oh Tapio you, Awesome, Awesome man... :) Now where were we? Oh right! Wicked stuff. So speaking of wicked: t
he bassline on Harmonia is my favorite type of unrelenting, rolling Trance bassline... Imagine a track with just a bassline like this, built on a powerful kick and crazy percussion. Honestly, I'd go apesh*t over that! As we near the 1:30 minute breakdown, I feel a smile forming as Orki sneaks in some gentle background pads. And then the breakdown rolls in and STOP. Freeze. Is that...? Is that the "I've seen things you wouldn't believe... Attack ships on fire of the shore of Orion" vox? The same one 00.db used in their track Majarka? Because eh, I was thinking of that EXACT same vox earlier at work today O_O Whoa... Freaky (and trivial) coincidence! Anyway, Harmonia breakdown: at 03:18 a weird yet very cool synthline backs the swelling main lead when a sudden stop has the insane bassline swelling to a killer climax! DAMN! Electrifying bassline inc. :D Insane groove! The breakdown elements now join said bassline for the Trance-effect. If you are going to end your album with a specific track, why not with the absolute highlight of the album in the form of the title-track? *Takes off hat*

And thus, Harmonia ends on the genius level it started on. What a trippy ride. Did that really take some 74 minutes? And did it live up to the expectations?

Razor Verdict
Harmonia = 8,0/10 I feel that overall this was a very enjoyable journey with an especially strong sequence of opening and closing tracks. The middle section of the album is where my least favorite tracks were present. Based on the ending (which was epic) I decided to give this album a slightly higher score but if I have to be really honest with myself, I know that my first impression of Tapio's former album "20" was a bit stronger (which isn't surprising because back then I was far less familiar with his music than I am now). I will replay the album a few times to give certain tracks a fair chance to grow on me but for the moment I have to try and capture my feeling for this first impression as accurate as possible. Going by that, I feel Harmonia is a more than solid album that falls just that wee bit short to be "Album Of The Year". I strongly feel it showcases the better side of Trance and I'll agree with Paavo that Orkidea's sound is retrofuturistic: there are always hints of the Classic Trance sound in it but it never sounds "old" or "dull": I've often used the word cinematic in this review and I think that strikes the core of his sound. I think his music and composition skills would work well for a movie ala Interstellar or Inception. It has that... "Layered-ness" to it.

I will admit not every track might be as strong as the next one. Of course, especially with someone like Tapio, the bar was set pretty high from the get-go and we mustn't forget how I become more demanding with each passing year. Harmonia is very much a continuation of 20's richly-textured cinematic soundscapes and both as a follow-up and a standalone album, it stands firm. The album was well worth the purchase and I hope Tapio keeps serving as a Vanguard of non-cheesy uplifting Trance as well as non-noisy "modern Trance". Well done, sir! Also credit to his studio partners on Harmonia, I think especially the addition of Lowland to certain tracks worked out very well as they got that extra edge. Kudos people, you made this music/Orkidea fan very happy! Also: big respect for covering a BPM range from 122 to 140. If anything, this album proves the utter falacy of the BPM Determinism shown by certain Trance fanbases on social media. It's not about the tempo: it's about the content.

Cover art
I'd also like to take a moment to look at the CD itself. Niko Luoma took care of the cover art which looks like a luminescent orb, or a snapshot taken from space and then replicated symmetrically endlessly. The dominant blue shades over the dark background make for a fitting cover to the music's overall theme and the blue+black+white colorscheme of the booklet is very slick. Tapio's explanation of the album's conception and place in his career is fascinating to read, as are the philosophical quotes pondering the word "Harmonia", as well as the keywords throughout the booklet (Harmony, Retrofuturism, Progressive, Create and Harmonia). All in all the feeling of having a piece of art like this in your hands can never be trumped by an mp3 version of the album, or streaming services like Spotify. It makes me believe that music fanatics the world over, regardless of genre, will always need the physical container of their artist's new work of art to fully indulge in an experience that is like few others: the moment you seclude yourself from the world around you, get comfortable, plug the headphones in and hit "play". Harmonia is an album worthy of the time and effort put in this Listening Ritual.

Once again Tapio, well done and thank you for this journey. I hope to take it many more times this year. :)

| Album Review | May 25th - May 31st 2015 |

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