Remember when it was all block-rockin’ beats around here? With de-cluttered 4/4 rhythms and polite basslines now the backbone of daytime radio pop, you might imagine the battle for an international pax electronica long won. Watch the trailer for odious-looking LA ravesploitation picture We Are Your Friends – all over social media recently with the tag “EDM Douchebags: The Movie” – and it seems like a pyrrhic victory (Frankie Knuckles died for this?). What’s missing is the dirt, the funk, the fuzzed-up grimy thrill that came when dance music was outsider, not insider culture.
“A thunderous reminder that when they’re on their game they’re spectacular.”
The Prodigy responded by annexing a perpetual teenage state of mind as the ever angrier AC/DC of BPM. But their pioneer contemporaries The Chemical Brothers always worked with a broader palette – synaesthesic, cosmic, even pastoral – and a broader audience (people who’ve never bought a Chems record will make a beeline for them at any festival).
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have also been away for, effectively, eight years after their unfocused 2010 album Further stalled a run of five UK Number 1s. Born In The Echoes is thus something of a relaunch and a reintroduction for The Chemical Brothers, a thunderous reminder that when they’re on their game they’re spectacular.
If Further was too abstract to be approachable, Born In The Echoes piles back into their trademark collision of motorik electronics and report-to-the-dancefloor beats with a vulnerable, dislocated humanity. There are bangers aplenty — the climax-upon-climax of Reflexion, I’ll See You There’s progtronic freakout, Just Bang’s pared-back techno mantra — but also a richer emotional core. On flagship track Sometimes I Feel So Deserted, analogue grind and go-mental snare rolls are flipped by a counterintuitive refrain, which conjures up that strange dancefloor moment when loneliness hits.
“Conjures up that strange dancefloor moment when loneliness hits.”
Elsewhere, collaborations are back with a vengeance. The nimble Under Neon Lights recasts St. Vincent as a wandering raver on an urban odyssey – read MOJO’s interview with Tom Rowlands’ on his impressions of working with Annie Clark now – Cate Le Bon brings Nico-like froideur to a sparse title track, and Beck charts a dissolving love affair on the gorgeously plaintive closer Wide Open. The last drum-machines-and-synths outfit to dig so deep into the raw material of loss and age were Rowlands and Simons’ heroes New Order.
The Chemical Brothers already reinvented the wheel once back in the ’90s. It is a bit much to expect them to do it again – and maybe no need either. From the magnificent Q-Tip-assisted disco of Go to Radiate’s epic My-Beatley-Valentine celebration of love, Born In The Echoes finds them capturing the most elusive sound of all. They sound, at last, like themselves again.
Hear Under Neon Lights (featuring St Vincent) here...
And EML Ritual here...