For In One Ear (thanks again SG!).
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have returned to their DJ roots for their seventh album Further. Or so The Chemical Brothers would have us believe. Ever since the name-change inspired debut Exit Planet Dust fifteen years ago, Tom and Ed have produced consistently beguiling, intriguing and wonderful music fusing electronic big beats with equally big name guest vocalists. But no album since has attempted to capture the essence and the raw energy of the debut; the swirling vortex of sounds that blend into one another to create a huge behemoth of duelling, almost improvised, dance music. This was attempted on the last album We Are The Night, most notably the excellent Saturate and mesmerising Burst Generator (later included as part of the original Battle Weapons series on the Brotherhood singles) - both born from an old-school experimental approach. This is a spectacular u-turn in the wake of previous album, the brilliant Push The Button.
The big difference with Further is the (optional) inclusion of visuals. The full version of the album is a DVD of videos to accompany each song, developed by Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, the stark vibrant images moving in time with the music. This isn’t quite the collaboration that formed Gorillaz but something much more subtle, with videos designed to compliment the music and not the other way round. Without these, Further is still a captivating audio experience. From the slightly subdued opener Snow, gliding from Morse code to pulsating psychedelia within a laboured five minutes, to the epic shimmering shoe gazing indie of Wonders Of The Deep, the Chemical Brothers deliver their most understated work to date. There are no big obvious singles, no hard-hitting dance floor fillers, and no epic stadium finale. It is like one massive slow build-up that ends in chilled-out ambivalence.
At nearly twelve minutes, the mighty Escape Velocity is an early highlight. As the remnants of Snow melt away (too obvious?) in the first minute, the soundscape builds in the second to be replaced suddenly by stuttering and wavering bass that finally gives way to drums and synths. This is typical Chemical Brothers given a low-fi treatment. Four minutes in and things really take a discernable shape and almost immediately descend into a slow whirling vortex of bends and curves, to build again at the half way point, this time with more purpose. A serious lull forms much of the seventh minute before a Beatles-esque cacophony of noise brings back… much of the same. The final three minutes is livened by a mix of textures, more swirling beats and neat layering before it just fades away into a series of repeated bleeps.
Of the rest, Dissolve is an obvious crowd pleaser, sitting somewhere between Tomorrow Never Knows and Oasis circa Be Here Now. A central riff is revisited constantly and held together with buzzing space-aged circuitry. This is built around a familiarly obvious framework of loud, quiet, loud into the last pulsating minute and a half. Disappointingly it chooses to fade out rather than go out with a bang. Likewise Swoon is also impressive, after an uncertain opening suddenly jumping into life like a long lost Orbital masterpiece. “Just remember… to fall in love”, echo the vocals over and over within the siren-like synths. It all comes together when the drum tracks kick in and the ideas start to flow, the start/stop formula used with expert effect. Easily the high point of Further. Following this, K+D+B is more soulful but lacks substance and a decent vocal arrangement. And Another World could be Lemon Jelly at their most eclectic with Rowlands on rare vocal duties amongst the shifting backwards beats and cymbal-heavy percussion. But at the heart of Further is the absurdly good Horse Power. Only the Chemical Brothers could pull off such a stupendous near-six minutes of repeated vocoder and horse samples and make it sound even vaguely like a credible piece of music.
Further isn’t an immediate triumph but it’s certainly interesting. The Chemical Brothers continue to set a high standard and in trying to return to the musical style that inspired them, and brought their sound into the mainstream, they have taken less of a u-turn and more a sidestep. The lack of high profile collaborations (the understated inclusion of Stephanie Dosen aside) is a positive here. Further is much more real, much more intimate and personal, and much more a Chemical Brothers album, because of it. And the live shows will be as good as ever, with or without visuals. But you can’t help thinking that in making the kind of album they wanted to in the early years, the Chemical Brothers now lack many of the big ideas that got them this far.
-- CS (for In One Ear)