The dance duo boldly reinvent their sound, breaking into darker and more twisted territory than ever before
The Chemical Brothers are arguably one of the most important groups in dance history. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ peerless ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ introduced rock and psychedelia to dance music’s palette in 1997, and they pioneered combining indie vocalists with big beats on early records like scorching Noel Gallagher collaborations ‘Setting Sun’ (1997) and ‘Let Forever Be’ (1999).
But for a while in the 2000s, they threatened to become one of the most predictable. During an underwhelming run from 2002’s ‘Come With Us’ to 2007’s ‘We Are The Night’, you knew what to expect: guest singers like Kele Okereke (‘Believe’) or Richard Ashcroft (‘The Test’), and mass-appeal beats. Their music remained enjoyable, in a frenetic kind of way, but it lacked the innovation of their first records. Consequently, 2010’s ‘Further’, a record that saw them ditch the guests in favour of something deeper, darker and weirder, was very welcome indeed.
Collaborators return for ‘Born In The Echoes’, the pair’s eighth album and first since ‘Further’. But here the Brothers largely bend the singers to their will, their voices subservient to the power of the songs.
St Vincent’s contribution to ‘Under Neon Lights’, for example, is chilling (“And she moves to suicide / In and under neon lights”), her voice eventually cut to electronic shreds and fed stuttering back into the mix like a malfunctioning car alarm. They pull a similar trick with London singer Ali Love (who guested on ‘We Are The Night’ single ‘Do It Again’) on ‘EML Ritual’, his vocals pitch-shifted and layered to create the unsettling effect of too many late nights, echoing lyrics about losing your mind (“I don’t know what to do / I’m going to lose my mind”).
These two tracks brilliantly marry ‘Further’’s brooding electronica with the unsettling feel of the darkest psych-rock. But the real highlights are those that sound least like anything the Chems have done previously, as they burrow further down the rabbit hole, emerging somewhere between early Pink Floyd, minimal techno oddball Ricardo Villalobos and experimental London electro group White Noise, who formed in 1968.
‘I’ll See You There’ takes them closer than ever to the perennial psychedelic touchstone of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by combining live-sounding (and ferociously funky) electronic drums with spectral effects and rolling keyboards. The result sounds like a Tame Impala jam fed through the Chems’ motherboard. ‘Taste of Honey’ is odder still, coming on like the kind of obscure gem you’d uncover on a small-selling seven-inch from 1968, a droning psych-pop tune punctuated by distressed violin and the sound of a bee. ‘Born In The Echoes’ (featuring Cate Le Bon), meanwhile, brings to mind someone practicing loudly on a new synth over Broadcast’s ‘Pendulum’.
This section of electro-psych wonder culminates in the fantastic ‘Radiate’, a brutally touching digital torch song that sounds like Daft Punk coming to terms with a particularly nasty break up, all electronic fuzz, wonky orchestration and heartfelt vocals from Rowlands (“What is this / That I can see? / Just radiate / Your love to me“). It would be the perfect ending but instead, it gives way to the underwhelming ‘Wide Open’. Marrying a burbling house beat to Beck’s melancholic vocal, it’s out of step with the album’s meaty, dark feel. ‘Go’ (with Q-Tip) is equally ill fitting, its niggling acid hooks and strident bass let down by a horrible chorus full of faux inspirational gunk (“No time to rest / Just do your best”).
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Thankfully, it doesn’t matter too much: ‘Born In The Echoes’ is a bold reinvention of the Chemical Brothers’ sound, pushing the late-period renaissance that ‘Further’ heralded to somewhere dark and twisted.
Director: The Chemical Brothers
Record label: Virgin EMI
Release date: 17 Jul, 2015