December 15, 2013 by DJ Elroy
The soft sound of snowy silence gently blankets the suburbs. The smell of woodsmoke is in the air. Strings of lights that have been climbing wild up and down rooftops all year finally flicker to life for a few brief weeks before the switch is pulled one last anti-climactic time and they’re forgotten again for another 330 days. A neighbor walks past, happily whistling a Christmas tune. Everyone seems to be in the holiday spirit.
At least until someone slips on that hidden patch of ice and breaks their leg, because a neighborhood with people that leave their holiday lights up year-round is a neighborhood full of people too lazy to shovel the snow off the sidewalk.
And then there’s me. Checking my mailbox every day like Ralphie waiting for his Little Orphan Anne Secret Decoder Ring. And while there were plenty of bills (FINAL NOTICE! CALL AT ONCE!) and even more junk mail (YOU’VE BEEN PRE-APPROVED FOR A NEW CREDIT CARD!), there was never any new music.
Until now. The Fat Man finally left the package I’ve been waiting for! No, not Santa. The Man in Blue. The federal mail carrier. The guy that gets angry if he has to get out of his jeep to walk the three steps to my mailbox. With their wonderful union work-ethic it’s no wonder delivery took about a month longer than it was supposed to.
I was anticipating this to be the guiding star of the holiday season. It’s been a big year for Balance with releases by Guy J, Radio Slave, and jozef, and the bar was set high to continue the trend of awesome albums to spin out of Balance HQ. I’d been teased by the press release. I’d heard the samplers. I’d studied the tracklist.
And now I was holding this potential treasure in my near-frozen fingers.
Much like the seasonal cycles, music too sees itself going through a similar evolution. New sounds start off a little uncertain, sometimes completely by accident, but they somehow find an underground foothold and plant their roots. A new genre sprouts, and when it peaks it is full of warmth and vibrant life. However, the golden days don’t last forever. Eventually the well of creativity seems to dry out and the music industry machine tries (and fails) to replicate what has worked before. The leaves begin to fall from the trees, so to speak. Over-commercialization may appear to give the scene an autumnal beauty, but it’s just a matter of time before the fans migrate to something new and we’re left with nothing but a bleak and empty landscape of emotionless beats and cheap hits with no real warmth.
Danny Howells’ Balance 024 is the seed of the new sound. Only it isn’t really new at all.
My love affair with Mr Howells has been more than a decade in the making. There was a time before the internet had fully taken over our lives, back when you couldn’t always get any album from any artist with a few clicks of the mouse; a time when DJ mixes weren’t so disposable or predictable, and when you found a mixset you listened to it over and over, you learned it inside and out, and you loved it. I stumbled across his Nu-Breed and Renaissance mixes and liked his style. I searched out later albums like his Global Underground offering and later his 24:7 ticket. Classics, all. Not like today where the music is throw-away and more machine than man; if you listen close enough you can almost hear the DJ lose interest halfway through his mix because his mind is already on his next project. But where some jocks are always trying to break the next big hit, others, the true artists, are not afraid to offer something more substantive. Something not necessarily new, but rather something special; something timeless.
When asked about how he choose what made it onto the album, Danny says: “I had a brief discussion with Balance a few years back [and] since then I was always semi-consciously thinking about the tracks I was buying and playing that I thought would be suited to an album. I’m talking about tracks that don’t really age, and that mainly have some kind of soulful edge… gorgeous subtle melodies and so on. When the album idea was confirmed earlier this year it just boiled down to me filtering all those tracks I’d hoarded, making sure I focused on the ones that still did something to me, even after God knows how many listens.”
Disc 1 — “That Mix” — starts with an atmospheric downtempo chill-ride on Essay’s “Find You” and warms up nicely with a classic progressive house flavor, generously sprinkled with tech-infused cuts, deep basslines, subtle funk, and broken beats. The individual songs weave seamlessly into each other; whether it’s the steamy and ethereal melodies of “Mantasy” or the dark and broody attitude of “Mood Swings” or the spine-tingling “Porchlight and Rocking Chairs”, I noticed how skillfully dynamic the flow was without losing its direction. This mix is truly alive.
Disc 2 — “This Mix”. — is the perfect counterpoint to its flipside; this set is a bit more pumping but no less emotional. The playful grooves of “Falling” snuggle down with innocent ones like “Haeckls Kosmos” and “Roots” and everybody wins. Songs are laid in silky layers that manage to hold onto their individual personalities while coming together in a grand aural utopia. This album shows that the art of storytelling in a DJ mix is not quite dead after all.
Oftentimes I’ll have a clear favorite on multi-disc albums. Not so here. Whether you want some of “This” or a little of “That”, both mixes satisfy. Both have Howells’ unique sound and style, but each have a distinct mood and character and pulled different emotions out of me.
And isn’t that was art and music is all about?
So is this release all I’d been wanting for Christmas? Most definitely. It’s the perfect way to close out the year, and as these holiday seasons seems to feel less and less special the older I get, Danny Howells’ Balance 024 brings back some of the magic of years past. This pair of mixes has it all: a superb setlist, creative and tight programming, and an intuitive flow that’s all tied together by the natural talents of Mr Howells, earning him a strong A-rating and a place amongst the Balance elite.