Thursday, June 9, 2022

Kick the Tires and Light the Fires with Unagi

Here's a fun little surprise that arrived in the mail this week: Optimum Altitude, the upcoming CD by Unagi on his own 442 Records.  Who?  Unagi's a former Bay area producer now situated in Massachusetts who regularly works with Infinito 2017 of UPS and did Motion Man's Adult Situations album.  Looking him up on discogs, I see he's put out a bunch of albums over the years, primarily instrumentals, but usually with a few guests sporadically providing vocals.  Well, Optimum Altitude is a new one of those, but there are no guests this time around, it's all beats.

With that said, though, he does pepper in an awful lot of vocal samples, which help keep things jumping.  And don't get me wrong, this isn't just a beat tape cycling loops for two or three minutes per track.  This is a proper instrumental album, where each song is full of ever-changing samples and movements.  If you remember that Motion Man album, Optimum Altitude actually has a very similar tone.  There's a lot of creative choices.  Jazzy horns and a few instruments that are hard to place.  You won't recognize many of these samples, apart from the vocal ones.  For example, a fun short track called "Yo Wasteoid" pairs a classic Super Lover Cee line with a famous quote from The Breakfast Club, plus more familiar snippets from Kurtis Blow, Public Enemy (both the Bumrush the Show "Yo!" and the "Yeah, boy!"), Run DMC, Biz Markie, etc.  And there is a little bit of Schoolly D's "P.S.K." drums in that one.  But it's mostly a chunky piano loop and staccato horn stabs.

Actually, though, I found myself drawn more to the smoother tracks.  "Carver High" is a stand-out with some choice R&B vocal loops and stylish horn riffs.  "Prom Night" and "Waterfront Dining" have the kind of vibes to lull you in despite yourself.  "Say Yeah" is a good time, too, with a bouncy disco-era vibe to it.  But you know me, I really wish a lot of these tracks had some rapping on them.  Or even some scratching.  Otherwise, instrumental albums tend to leave me feeling like I've read a screenplay rather than watched a movie, even when they are more fleshed out like this one.  Personally, listening to this gets me more excited to check out a vocal album Usagi produced, because this proves he's got the chops - there's a lot of great material here.

And hey, there's obviously a solid audience for instrumental albums.  For a lot of people, something like Endtroducing is an all-time classic.  Me, honestly, I listened to it once and put it away.  So, from that you can tell if you're in that instrumental camp or not.  And if you are, keep an ear out for this.  Unagi's been posting some Optimum Altitude tracks on his socmed already, but the full album won't be out until July.  Fifteen tracks in a full-color sleeve; I reckon it'll be available on his bandcamp in a few more weeks.