Friday, July 24, 2015

album review: 'born in the echoes' by the chemical brothers

I've said in the past that for me, electronic music has been a discovery process in learning to explore and appreciate it - and this year more than ever, I've found more electronic music that I've really loved. But there's always been one big exception to that exploration, one electronic group I've known for years and have really loved, one genre-bending group that's been active since the 90s and has produced more than their fair share of critically acclaimed, absolutely killer records. And no, I'm not talking about Daft Punk.

Nope, I'm talking about The Chemical Brothers, the British electronic duo partially responsible for popularizing the 'big-beat' era in late-90s electronic music and one of the few groups to survive its collapse. Known for their bombast, aggressive sampling, killer grooves, and an uncanny ability to get weird and not implode or disappear up their own asses, The Chemical Brothers' first three albums are damn close to untouchable snapshots of their era, and while the quality got shakier throughout the 2000s as electronic music retreated back into the underground, they still produced quality, especially on the striking return to form Further in 2010.

But let's face it, electronic music is a much different place in 2015 than it even was five years ago. EDM smashed into the mainstream before fragmenting, the festival circuit is increasingly overstuffed, and the Internet is flooded with would-be samplers hoping that their off-beat brand of sampling gathers attention. And to some extent pure aggression isn't going to cut in the same way - while Further holds up a solid five years later with some killer grooves and great crescendos and progressions, it's always interesting to see if the old titans can still crush the David Guettas and Calvin Harrises of the world into the corners where they belong. Did Born In The Echoes pull this off?

Well, in a way it does. Not quite among The Chemical Brothers' best work but still far away from their worst, Born In The Echoes is a tricky album to analyze, mostly because it has the feel of being led headfirst through several walls of jagged, atonal twists and shards of melody. And while there is an arc thematically on this record, sonically it's a fair bit less cohesive than The Chemical Brothers' best work, with plenty of the ragged, roiling muscle but not quite the same flow, a record that if you dig deep does have more experiments but stumbles more often as a result. In other words, definitely a strong record, but comparing to their landmark work in the 90s or to Further, Born In The Echoes does fall a little short, if only by a little.

So let's start with the meat of this album, the instrumentation and production. Like always, The Chemical Brothers have a knack not just for heavier, more immediate progressions and grooves that demand attention, but the bigger, more spacious production in order to accommodate them, Many of the tracks may begin small, with high or low flutters either in the hollow keys on 'Under Neon Lights' to the more aggressively psychedelic 'I'll See You There' to the tiny insect-like skitter of 'Taste Of Honey', or in the fluttering recorders that open the title track or the tight-as-nails low synth on 'EML Ritual' or the pummeling, noisy drums that open 'Just Bang'. And on each of these segments the Chemical Brothers add layers of textured drums, choppy guitar grooves, or noisy, blaring synth fragments that can feel atonal but focus more on the all-important crescendos that often collapse into windswept, empty backdrops or fragmented, howling breakdowns. And there's an anxious tension that drives the first half of the album so aggressively it almost makes the smoother but still gritty second half worth the cooldown as futuristic synthesizers whirl and fade in and out. And yet despite all of the experimentation, The Chemical Brothers don't shy away from melodic hooks that do stick in the brain - these guys have a pop sensibility, and even when the tones get more abrasive and experimental, the compositions can still grab your attention.

And make no mistake, the tonal choice does feature its fair share of moments that push the envelope and that I really loved. The stomping bass rattle midway through 'Sometimes I Feel So Deserted', the downward shifting bass melody against the ascending synth on 'Go' coupled with a great melodic hook, the waves of rattling sleigh bells on 'EML Ritual', the punishing psychedelic rock vibe with warped vocal fragments and atonal howls on 'I'll See You There' that rocks harder that reminds me more a Ty Segall track than most psychedelic rock revival taking place today, the incredibly deep, bass-and-kick drum beat of the title track against the alien synth tones, and especially the gleaming synths that spray across 'Radiate, the moment of stepping into the light this album desperately needs, especially with those horns on the outro. It's such a strong emotive climax and closer that it almost makes you wish the closing track 'Wide Open', featuring Beck on the vocals and these plaintive, yearning keys as it all slips away, hit just a little harder or actually ended in the cloud of noise it develops midway through. And on the topic of vocals, most of the guest stars play their parts well, with Q-Tip's exuberant hip-house bars matching the energy, Ali Love's tones a reflexive warning, St. Vincent's oddly multi-tracked and dead-eyed voice creepy as hell, and Cate Le Bon doing a slightly stiffer and more restrained St. Vincent impression - as much as I liked her on the title track, she was easily the least essential part, which you could argue for all of the vocals on this album. Granted, these are all of the experiments that worked, because midway through the record you get 'Taste Of Honey' which is just a complete mess complete with chipmunk fragments, a tinkling music box, ragged strings, and what sounds like a beer oscillating from ear-to-ear. I get the thematic throughline, I understand why the song is supposed to be uncomfortable, but nobody wants to hear a bee right around their ears, especially on this borderline-unfinished song.

So let's talk about those themes. Now unlike Further, the progression of Born In The Echoes is a little trickier to define from the vocal fragments, the first half which seem to paradoxically emphasize both anxious hesitation and reckless exuberance in stepping towards whatever might come next, be it love, the encroach of time, or even the next pummelling groove. 'Under Neon Lights' is a prime example - all she wants is a 'view tonight', but she questions whether or not she really wants to see it. Warnings imply it might well be salvation or damnation, but by 'I'll See You There', a sample of the titular words drags the listener into whatever might come. Taken from the Canadian poet bill bissett, who The Chemical Brothers have sampled before, there's a certain primal dread that comes with being catapulted into the unknown. And yet as the title track emphasizes, by taking that step we define ourselves. Not through what we say or what we consume, but what we do, our identities forged from how those actions - how that emotion - radiates and reverberates. In short, we're all born in the echoes, and it makes sense how Beck pleads to hold onto that sensation as the album ends, because even if it hurts, it's better than nothing. 

In other words, Born In The Echoes is a call to action, designed to drag the listener to do something with reckless abandon, despite uncertainty or insecurity, for ultimately it'll be what matters in the end. A little corny perhaps - it's basically a motivational poster painted on a steamroller - but frankly, I can't think of a better band than The Chemical Brothers to push such a theme, so this album definitely works for me in that regard. Do I wish more songs hit a little harder and felt a little more cohesive, the theme had crystallized a little more sharply and more of the experiments had worked? Yeah, definitely, which is why this album gets a strong 7/10 from me. But I'm definitely recommending it if you're a fan of the Chemical Brothers or if you're just looking for some aggressive, rough-edged electronic music to hit with significant punch. And in comparison with most sleepy deep-house, underweight trap, or formless EDM, I'll take this any day.

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