Review: Astralwerks Music in 20/20

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of Astralwerks, the American electronic music label responsible for bringing acts like Air, Fatboy Slim, The Future Sound of London and The Chemical Brothers to the states. Astralwerks was a major force behind America’s embrace of “electronica” in the mid-90s, and while the label’s relevance has diminished a bit since then, they’re still a dominant presence in the electronic music scene, with releases by artists like Empire of the Sun, David Guetta and NERVO tearing up dance charts today.

In celebration of their anniversary, Astralwerks put out a special limited edition Record Store Day release, a 20 flexi-disc box set, featuring 20 tracks by 20 different artists who supposedly best represent the label’s diverse sound (including their occasional forays into rock and folk music). It’s a very odd, and sadly disappointing release, one that fails to properly represent the label’s rich legacy while at the same time incredibly unpractical to play and unpleasing to look at.

First the tracklisting. Each flexi is dedicated to a single song by a single artist, and are as follows:

  • The Future Sound of London – “The Far Out Son of Lung and the Ramblings of a Madman” (12″ Version)
  • The Chemical Brothers – “Block Rockin’ Beats”
  • The Beta Band – “Dry The Rain”
  • Fatboy Slim – “Praise You”
  • Cassius – “Cassius 1999”
  • doves – “The Cedar Room”
  • Kings of Convenience – “Winning a Battle, Losing the War (J-Walk Remix)”
  • Basement Jaxx – “Where’s Your Head At”
  • Royksopp – “Poor Leno”
  • Sia – “Breathe Me (Four Tet Remix)”
  • Hot Chip – “My Shit’s On Fire Right Now”
  • The Kooks – “Put Your Back to my Face”
  • Empire of the Sun – “Walking on a Dream”
  • David Guetta – “Sexy Bitch”
  • Air – “Indian Summer”
  • Kraftwerk – “Die Roboter”
  • Eric Prydz – “Allein”
  • Swedish House Mafia – “Don’t You Worry Child”
  • Diamond Rings – “Put Me On (Diamond Dance)”
  • Gold Fields – “Dark Again”

This selection is problematic for many reasons. Firstly, there’s the rather obvious matter that this box doesn’t actually cover 20 years of material. The earliest track on here, FSOL’s “Far Out Son…” is from 1995. Nothing from Astralwerks’ first two years is included at all. I think it would be a stretch to expect every single year of Astralwerks’ existence to be covered, but this seems like a pretty bad oversight.

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Then there’s the matter of the tracks that they chose to include. Sadly, instead of showing the rich tapestry of Astralwerks’ history, this box set does a better job of showing the gradual decline in quality that electronic music has suffered from the late 90s to today. The stuff they chose from the 90s, FSOL, The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, they’re all straight up classic tracks by classic artists. But look at the later-era stuff, Prydz, Gold Fields, SHM, the disgusting David Guetta and his sickeningly misogynist and gross “Sexy Bitch.” It’s all lowest-common-denominator EDM bullshit.

Why include this trash? The kind of person who is going to buy a box set like this is probably more interested in the experimental and purely electronic dance music stuff, and not crap like that. Sure, Hot Chip is on here, and Diamond Rings is okay, but why not Goldfrapp, a newer Kylie track or even something different like Bat For Lashes? Anything but “Sexy Bitch” please. That song isn’t just a blight on Astralwerks’ legacy, but it’s a blight on pop music and humanity as a whole. Don’t forget all the classic artists they excluded too. They could have put something by Eno, Brian Ferry, Beth Orton, Fluke, Photek or any other great and influential artist in the label’s storied archives, but they chose David fucking Guetta’s ode to degrading women?

Brav-fucking-o.

There are some rare and hard-to-find tracks included, which is sort of a mixed blessing. Sure, it’s great to have a copy of the “My Shit’s On Fire Now” by Hot Chip, but having it on a flexi-disc really isn’t helpful. Flexi-discs sound like crap, furthermore, they’re highly degradable crap. Play a flexi 40 or so times and that rare track is going to sound like it was recorded underwater…on a boombox.  It would have been nice if they included a download code, at least for the rare stuff if nothing else.

And it doesn’t even look good. The box is bland, done up like an eye-chart to keep with the 20/20 theme. Sure, that’s kind of clever, but that doesn’t make it any less drab. Also the box doesn’t close very well, so you can’t even display it without leaning it against a wall.

The box never completely closes, it's very annoying.

The box never completely closes, it’s very annoying.

 

The real buzzkill though is the obvious complete lack of effort put forth on the flexis themselves. Some are transparent, that looks cool and is a nice touch because it allows you to see the cover art through them. But others are just plain sold black or white. Why? It just seems thrown together and random, like no thought was put into it at all. Sure, that may sound like a minor thing to nitpick at, but when the music itself is lacking and the format its presented on is sub-par, it would help if it at least looked cool. The Flaming Lips’ re-issue of Zaireeka was idiotic and pointless, but they had the common decency to give it a nice box and color up the vinyls so they looked pretty.

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If Astralwerks really wanted to honor their legacy and respect their fans, they would dig into the vaults for some real rarities and hard-to-find classics. They could put together a FSOL 12″ compilation, re-release the Rarewerks CDs, or maybe put together an honest-to-goodness CD/LP collection that actually showcases the label’s diverse lineup and storied history. Or they could have gone the Warp route and crafted a box set truly worthy of their label’s heritage.

This is a cute souvenir at best, a neat thing to put on your record shelf and nothing more. And it’s a pity, because it could have, and should have, been much more than that.

5 Responses to Review: Astralwerks Music in 20/20

  • No surprise, really. Astralwerks releases were always cheaped-up versions of their European-licensed cousins.

  • Eric Schulz says:

    One of their best releases was a CD sampler I picked up as a promo when I worked at Virgin Megastore in Denver back in the late 90’s: Astralwerks 1999 V. 1. GREAT selection of songs (I think they were at their peak at that time), even moreso since it was free!

  • Grebo says:

    I’m glad you posted this – I bought one on RSD but have been hedging on bothering to open it (seeing as playing these things will wear ’em down to dust) or keep it sealed and maybe sell it someday in the future. Think it might be the latter – I’m not much for people who buy RSD limited items and flip them, but even as I was forking out the $$$ for it I already had the nagging feeling I’d been had.

  • Jason K says:

    Well that was depressing. Booo Astralwerks.

  • Jason says:

    thanks for the review – this was the only RSD item I wanted but couldn’t find… I’m glad I didn’t go the ebay route

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