Helena Hauff, "Discreet Desires" (Werkdiscs/Ninja Tune). The music of German electronic composer Helena Hauff sounds recycled from the remains of an abandoned Kraftwerk storage facility, as if the spare parts of old Roland, Moog, Nintendo, ARP and Buchla gear figured out a way to interface and become a single (barely) sentient machine.
Featuring rigid, unyielding beats, synth-pop dots and squiggles of synthetic melody, the 10 tracks on "Discreet Desires" thrive in the sweet spot between mechanical rigidity and humanoid improvisation. Interlocking rhythms drive the tracks, loops stacking atop one another every four beats until they've structured themselves sturdily and approach a certain majesty. Then weird stuff starts happening.
"Silver Sand & Boxes of Mould" hums along, a low-end repetitive bass-line swirling while shards of crystalline sound try to disrupt the order. "L'homme mort" has the vibe of a bunch of 1970s Roland gear — TB-303, TR-707 and TR-808 — trying to outmaneuver one another. Relaxing? Hardly. This stuff is a workout from beginning to end.
Kelela, "Hallucinogen EP" (Warp/Cherry Coffee). Like kindred spirits FKA Twigs and Dawn Richard, the Los Angeles-based experimental R&B artist Kelela uses samples of her voice to create sensual bliss. By overlaying washes of vocal texture above computer-driven rhythms that perform extra-human feats, the singer and her producers create tracks that split the difference between commercial R&B and out-there experimental beat music.
For "All the Way Down," Kelela works with the Grammy-nominated Inglewood producer DJ Dahi, best known for his work with the rapper Drake. Opener "A Message" is a minimal, tripped-out track built by British producer Arca that features Kelela's voice manipulated within so many filters that the end result is dizzying, especially when heard loud on headphones. Kelela's not the greatest lyricist; this is confessional stuff that succeeds more due to the depth of its emotion than its craft. But the effect is often magnetic.
James Blake featuring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, "The Sound of Silence" (BBC Radio performance). At this point an American standard, Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" is so universally appreciated that it's tough to even see it as a pop song anymore. It's its own thing, a meditation on life that's ingrained in the country's psyche.
Grammy-nominated British ambient soul artist James Blake's new version with Grammy-winning Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon strips all that away until what remains is that sweet set of lyrics, delivered with a mellifluous, melodic phrasing, striking harmonies and a hint of underlying structure. They performed their version on BBC Radio 1 last week; the result offers a reminder of the song's inherent power, and the ways it can be re-imagined for new generations.