Mary Knoblock – Desert Spade
Mary Knoblock – Desert Spade – Album Review
The infamous looper returns! Mary Knoblock, aka DJ MEK, back in the house, here at our pages, and flowing through the speakers – life is good I tells ya. It was about…11 months since we last checked out her music in review through a handful of singles…which represented some of the material she’d created out of the six albums she’d put out over two years. In her absence from the pages here, she’s still been just as active out there in the electro-circuit as ever, releasing the albums Crowns Of Gold and Zero To Sixty (check out a track called “Glass Rainbows – super wild & grandiose sound with a whole range of ideas that show just how creative Mary is capable of being for sure!) over this past year, before putting out what would be Mary’s ninth official record if my math is all correct, the new album Desert Spade.
When I think of how much I can get done in a day…I like to think it’s like, you know, this superhuman amount of work that like, no one else in the world could really pull off. And then every once in a while, here comes Mary Knoblock to remind me that no one out there is more dedicated to the art than she is. She doesn’t come right out & say it of course – she doesn’t have to – the body of work speaks for itself and the continuous flow of music is all the proof you need to know her head & heart are in the game.
Plus…if you ask me…sure sounds like she’s still taking a moment or two to remember to have some fun! The title track of this record, “Desert Spade,” is brimming with electro-joy & melodic celebration – and it serves as a fantastic gateway into the rest of the album. The vibrant, imaginative, and wildly colorful aural experience continues to build in sound & enthusiasm quickly, each quirky electro sound adding up to the sum total of one seriously rad electro jam. There’s a bit of a split personality in “Desert Spade” overall…where it starts is not where you’ll end up…and that process of getting there is full of seamless transitions that keep the ride as smooth as it is wild to listen to. Highly invitational and enticing sound at the beginning, “Desert Spade” makes a decided shift into a more serious & mature style by the end, but undoubtedly remains entertaining the whole distance through. Of all the tracks on this record, the more that I listened, the more I appreciated the spirited attitude & mood of “Desert Spade” as it begins – I think it’s truly a refreshing vibe that instantly has you wanting to hear whatever comes next. Excellent kick-in to the beat just prior to the two-minute mark and she capitalizes on this moment perfectly before switching the sound up once more significantly before the end with the final transition. I’m not usually one for such a bright & cheerful sound…normally it’d be that final minute or so of “Desert Spade” that would be a more suitable match for my personal taste – but for some reason, it was really the opposite here. Every time “Desert Spade” started to head into its more mature sound at the end, I resisted…I love the way the first three-plus minutes of this song begins…dig the rest as well for sure, but LOVE that opening…that’s straight-up enticing and fun on every level to listen to.
Amping-up the textured electro aspect of her music, she brings the sound to a 3D-like state where you can feel them surging out of the speakers and invading your soul at the beginning of “Blocker.” I dig the chill it finds after things calm down a bit…and once those horn samples are threaded into the mix just prior to the two-minute mark, all-systems are go and this show is officially on the road. I dig what she’s doing because there’s exceptional character & personality in the sounds she’s selecting & using…almost with like, a Jazzy or World-Music vibe at times…maybe even arguably dramatic or theatrical at others – but let’s also face facts – Mary is NEVER dull. I can get that there will be people that will struggle with finding their way easily from point-A to point-B on a cut like “Blocker” – there always will be…no need to cater to the people that don’t ‘get it’ as an artist. Mary goes where the music takes her…sometimes that’s into straight-ahead grooves that can be comprehended universally…other times she dips further into the audiophile terrain and generates incredible sounds & sonic frequencies that scratch our cortex. “Blocker” might be a bigger ask of your everyday listener…but for those looking for an inventively hypnotic beat that delivers – definitely a track you’ll want in on. Right around the two-minute mark…I know I’ve said it already…but what a magical moment…Mary really starts to flex the surrounding elements of the music here from the lefts to the rights as “Blocker” plays on, deconstructing cleverly in the middle before bringing back the main electro-hooks and making a clear break before heading into its final two minutes. “Blocker” will make one more major shift after a quick pause around the five-minute mark & head to a really inspired ending…if anything, I’d say there are some more powerful ideas in this final forty-five seconds or so that could have been the base of an entirely new track!
The layers of sound interacting on “Lions” are a fine example of Mary’s music at its tightest within a few concepts, rather than add a full-on smorgasbord of sound. There are changeups of course, there are subtle transitions that keep us listening…but really, for the most part, she keeps “Lions” roaring gently throughout the larger part of that first four minutes in a familiar, hypnotic, and comforting vibe. When she does make her most major move and shift in sound on “Lions” heading into those final two-minutes or so, she switches up the melody brilliantly…like, to the point where it ALMOST makes you forget just how much you were enjoying the beginning. Seriously great energy, melody, and vibes on “Lions” no matter which direction she’s taken; the beginning presents a wickedly subtle groove that you can really grab onto…thought-provoking sound that sends you deep into your subconscious to reflect while you listen – and then of course, that final-third of “Lions” that breaks the mold completely and offers an entirely different dimension of electro-filled emotions. Loved the piano addition here, loved the way the beat worked…and whatever it is that Mary’s got complementing them both through the electro-melody on top…that’s just magnificent is what that is right there. The cherry on top, no doubt. With Mary’s style of structuring sound, she can often save some of her most massive highlights towards the end of her songs…like I want a full-on twenty minutes of her exploring the final two minutes of “Lions.” I like how well she transitions from idea to idea and it’d be hard to recommend changing that…but there are a couple moments where like at the end of “Lions” here, you’ll want so much more time with what she’s come up with…hard to tell on whether or not that warrants a whole new song or just another like, you know, fifty or so repeat-listens…just sayin.’
“Fade” shows up for the first of two times on this record, this time in its original form. Definitely a reason you’ll find that Mary’s got this cut on Desert Spade twice…it’s a killer tune…like a blend of Tortoise and Curve together, all with like, that slow-burning low-end infused intensity you’d find in a Massive Attack cut. Eventually, “Fade” reveals a lighter melody that’ll sit on top of it all, providing another layer of hooks that are equally high-caliber and attention grabbing. Solid ideas, stunning execution, and vibrantly laid-out in a structure that’s determined to deliver – “Fade” incorporates some genuine wildness into its mid-section in a massive breakdown that’s impossible not to notice…like a fax machine flipping out and trying to print a furious message while the song plays on along with it. I’ve got more to say about “Fade” – but I’ll save you some details for when we dive into the remix in a track or two down the road here…suffice it to say for now, Mary’s got a highly entertaining cut with this one.
“Queen Of Diamonds” makes use of a more experimental construct and unique beginning to pull us in. Oddly charming, definitely bizarre-meets-beautiful sounds come at you in the strangest of ways while a marching-style beat plays on in the background. Once the synth-lines come in to strengthen the structure after about a minute or so, we really start to hear this song transition as Mary adds more, breaks it down, adds new stuff, takes away other elements, and keeps the editing on “Queen Of Diamonds” playing a significant role. A track like this is definitely a tougher one for people outside of the electro-scene to absorb…but the cleverness of adding the crystalline & captivating sounds she uses should compensate for that and retain listeners in my opinion. I’ll fully admit that “Queen Of Diamonds” might not move and flow like you’d expect most electro to sound – but that’s equally part of the magic here and what entices me in to listen to this track…because it is so decidedly different than the rest. So while I can’t possibly vouch for “Queen Of Diamonds” being a favorite for everyone out there…for myself, the difference in direction & sound was completely welcome here…I love that Mary is so unafraid to explore uniqueness like this and think that the versatility & diversity that this track supplies the entire experience with is unlike any other you’ll find on the album.
There are also some songs that immediately grab your attention without any struggle whatsoever – and “Fade (Remix)” definitely has a whole bunch of’em! That rubbery low-end and staccato-style electro pulsing away quickly begins to envelop the atmosphere and surround you in sweet sound. She also ends up using a sample of an instrument that is…hmmm…it’s from the middle east area I believe…I’ve totally lost track of the name of it, even though I’ve got a drawer around here with one in it…it’s like a recorder in a way, but like, with a wayyyyyy more aggressive sound overall. Like…aggressive to the point where I haven’t once found a single song where I felt like I could get away with using it in my own recordings…but I like it in the mix here on “Fade (Remix)” and Mary used it really smart by not over-using it…it definitely adds a bold sound to the song, but briefly & early on. I wish I could remember what the freakin’ thing is called…I’ll have to reach out to Mary to see if she knows what it is ‘cause I can’t remember for the life of me…but I’m sure she knows which sound I’m talking about…she’s got it in both versions of “Fade.” Anyhow! I think there’s slight risk in having any song appear twice on one record…that assessment hasn’t changed, nor will it ever change I think, no matter how much I do/don’t like a song…from my experience, all it can possibly ever do is wear out a great idea twice as fast as the rest by comparison. Sometimes you can get away with chopping it up into interludes and intros etc. to build an ongoing theme…but even then in my opinion, that sameness can be wearing on a listening experience over time. At the beginning when everything is so shiny & new, life is fantastic…like right now I have no problem at all listening to both “Fade” and “Fade (Remix)” on Desert Spade with only “Queen Of Diamonds” to separate them – but over time, I’d suspect the result will be the same…I’ll likely always love the tune, but it’ll be the others that I end up seeking out more specifically as a result of having heard “Fade” so much, know what I mean? So double-edged sword here…it’s undeniably a solid electro cut…but you do get a lot of it. If I’m Mary in this situation…as much as remixes are a verifiable part of the game…I’d go with a surrounding pre-release single to hype the record, or even post-release of the album to save that second version and highlight the specialness of that song. Doing that allows people to get to more of what they want by choice without being overloaded by it all at once…which is always the potential risk in having a song appear twice. Something to consider. Between the two versions…I suppose if I had to choose, I’d go with the remix and give it the edge for its slightly thicker & richer sound overall…but it’s a thin margin.
“Sail” is probably one of the most intense cuts on this record and is definitely one of my favorites. At its fullest, the gripping way she’s structured her sounds & samples to interact is nothing short of incredible – and when Mary deconstructs a vibe, she does it exceptionally well, letting you really hear a lot of the sonic elements that create the atmosphere as she drops them off or fades them out. Perhaps the best part about it all…is just how well thought-out it really is…how professionally laid-out and planned some of these moves are, yet how natural and organic they still feel inside this electro-universe of Mary’s. Because believe me…when she makes the major transition in sound & style on “Sail” – it should BLOW YOUR MIND…if only for the fact that you’re actually hearing what the definition of cool really is, NBD! It’s right around the two-minute mark I believe…just after it…like around 2:15. Amazing switch into something even more awesome…considering how much I was already enjoying “Sail” – it was seriously unreal to hear her move & shift into an even stronger part of the song from the massive strengths that it already started with. Structure, layout, flow, sound-choice…you name it and Mary seems to have that covered in her wheelhouse…tracks like “Sail” are impeccably vibrant & lively. This is the art of electro in high-gear…extraordinary textures, brilliant movement, wildly enticing sounds and precision placement – “Sail” starts off in a fantastic gear and by the end of it, I’m convinced Mary deserves an award for how this song transitions into its second-wind every time…stunning, remarkable, outstanding…all the adjectives – she’s nailing it super hard here with ideas that surge & jump right out of the speakers.
What continually makes Mary’s music & the art of looping so interesting really pays off for her by the end of this record…I mean, it has throughout, but this final point suits the narrative I’m trying to build at the end of this review here…so just go with it will ya? The point is…the use of samples, loops and electro elements and the way that she does it…you’ve gotta keep in mind, these songs, songs like the final tune “King Of Spades” and every other one of them along the way – they’re all housing several ideas…ideas-within-ideas…and even more ideas within the ideas-within-the-ideas – you feel me? When it comes right down to it, you’ve gotta know your layering, your timing, your transitions and how all the different elements will interact when they’re all together, or what it’ll sound like when something is taken away from the mix. So make no mistake dear readers, dear friends – it can be quite a complex art when you invest yourself into the process as much as I’m positive that Mary does. It’s made Desert Spade highly entertaining and entirely inventive along the way…she’s an innovator and a tirelessly creative artist that is relentlessly inspired…all these factors & character traits play huge roles in the music yes – but also in HOW the music keeps getting made. She’s clearly in it cause she loves it…and that makes all the difference in the world when we listen. “King Of Spades” ends the record on a wild mix of subtle sounds in a frantically energetic swirl…a true contrast between the chill and the hype, resulting in a musical experience that’s the equivalent of getting all the right vitamins in ya for the day. There’s a real balance of energy on this final track that makes this final experience the right one to end Desert Spade on…but that never has to be the end…in fact, it almost never was for me personally.
And I can prove that to you. Do this looper a solid and click the ‘repeat all’ function on Desert Spade – and if you don’t immediately want to listen all over again from the subtle way that “King Of Spades” ends and “Desert Spade” begins…if you don’t want to experience that level of ingenuity & fun from the very first seconds that the album starts to repeat…well…first of all, I’d say you were nuts…and then I’d probably just turn the volume up myself and ignore the rest of what you’d have to say while tuned into Mary’s world and out of my own for a moment or two. I’m willing to do that any time – she’s awesome.
Find the new album Desert Spade & more music from Mary Knoblock at her official page at Spotify: