Friday, 29 March 2013

Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

We can deny it all we want, but at some point - regardless of how it inflicted on our young lives or how much we attempted to block it out - our early years were filled with high influxes of the likes of Justin Timberlake. Back in a time when boy-bands were seen more like musical gladiators vying to the death for supremacy, and MTV broadcasted this stream of music on a constant basis (haha, MTV playing music, yeh that's a good one), N Sync were less a means of outputting music and records, and more this trivial constant showdown against the rest who dare attempt stand in their way for dominance in the boy-band market. Timberlake was always going to be the one who came out with a promising career beyond the band - and that's not because he stood as the unofficial front-man and [officially] the one who had the more important lines in songs - thus while the trivial contest for success in boy-bands died down at the turn of the 21st century, he went on to make a successful career as not only a solo artist, but an artist who showed his more maturer and adult-lenient tendencies, even if such tendencies still lingered on the same-old context of love, relationships and the necessary tragedies that might befall it. In the seven years since FutureSex/LoveSounds was released, Timberlake has dabbled himself in acting and entrepreneurial feats alike. But none of it, no matter how daring, would ever match the music of which most people would identify with the Tennessee singer-songwriter. So while some might see it as a stiflingly odd turn of events to find him returning to music after such a long spell, with The 20/20 Experience, long-time fans (no doubt the ones who in some age had plastered posters of Mr. Timberlake all over their bedroom walls) will be thrilled by a new album. And for a ten-track seventy minute bonanza, the suspicion that this will be grand, ambitious and full of pop flavour is an almost certain assumption likewise. 

But as a man who isn't blissfully succumbed to this allure of personality and supposed flavour, the truth of the matter - and the matter plaguing most (if not all) of mainstream pop - is the album's depth, or rather lack of it. The opening track Pusher Love Girl may attempt to deceive us with its sweeping cinematic scale of violins. And even when it breaks down and opens itself out to a more subtle and RnB-focused beat and rhythm, there's still a lingering whiff of the predictable and the one-dimensional about Timberlake's focus on beats and rhythm. By the half-way point, I'm curious - creeping towards worried - as to what the remaining four minutes will offer, and while I'm again intrigued by the violin inclusion and how it seems to settle and calm the music down, I'm left feeling rather deflated at his (and indeed producer Timbaland's) methodology in remixing the layers of the music into something more groove-orientated in an attempt to add further depth. But even with the slightly more synthetic approach, it doesn't excuse Timberlake's one-dimensional and cringe-worthy lyricism. Again, the metaphor of love being a drug only leaves me cringing in disgust: 'I'm hooked upon you, it won't go away/And I can't wait until I get home and get you in my veins' which then leads us even more cringe-inducing to: 'Can't you fix me up, I'm your number one theme/My little pill and just creep into my bloodstream'. Not a good start, by any standards.

I don't discredit Timberlake's passion and vocal intensity here, and said elements appear quite voluntarily on follower, and lead single, Suit & Tie. The song has much more of a polished and refined edge to it than previous, but as far as depth and structure, that's not really saying much. The initial slow crawl of beats work well to play into the hands of Timberlake's main focused flutter of vocals thereafter and while the emphasis on beats is clear, there's plenty of organic instrumentation to give the track some much-needed charisma and colour to it. I just wish Jay-Z's follow-on rap was a bit more synchronous and as tonal as the music and vocals that preceded it. It ultimately feels out of place and rather generalized, as if it could fit any pop song quite easily. Don't Hold The Wall perhaps holds more promise because the nature of the track's nightly ambiance and suburban clatter of percussion and harmony gives his vocals a suitable nesting place. Vocals aside, the music feels rather understanding of itself - not necessarily attempting anything grand-scale or overly pompous or snide. The focus on the groove of percussion I think is what helps the music progress, but I just wish that - once more - Timberlake's decision to make this a seven-minute listen would mean that the music developed more, and sadly the closing two-and-a-half minute feel more like an over-stretched remix than a justifiable reason for the music to be forced into this club-themed swing of synth-based disco deliverance. 

One of the album's, I suppose, beneficial positives here is its divergence, and focus, on a multitude of different genres including blues, jazz, classic RnB and even funk in places. Strawberry Bubblegum certainly feels like one of Timberlake's more experimental tracks musically - experimental in the sense that it attempts this pop execution using, in this case, the laced grooves of RnB and funk to try and explore its subject matter. If only the subject matter was a lot less romantic and one-dimensional in its deliverance, this track might have been onto something. But in the end, I feel the music is left with second-fiddle against Timberlake's lyricism: 'Don't ever change your flavour because I love the taste/And if you ask me where I want to go I'll say all the way'. It's a shame, because I feel this sound (if it were given the proper treatment and respect it so rightfully deserves) this could have offered us with a more interesting side to Timberlake's music. But in the end, all it does is fall victim to sexualized - rather pornographically - images of this tired rehash of the most intimately made-out metaphor for love and expressing such love. It's a cliche (one of if not the biggest cliche) that's been done so many a time in contemporary pop, and Timberlake's rather slow, seeping attempts are not going to divert my view away from viewing this as nothing short of cringe-worthy. But even when the metaphors aren't as brimming and purposefully-romanticizing, Spaceship Coupe shows that lyrics can often ruin what momentum and intriguing structure of sound the track generates. Despite Timberlake's emphasis on funk and a slow beat of rhythm and blues - squirming beats, icy sprinkles of piano and rowdy guitar riffs all combining into quite an emphatic and, dare I say it, moving melody - it's his lyrics about driving to a galaxy, being 'only room for two' and 'making love on the moon' that drain what character Timberlake attempts to swirl into the mix. In the end, the supposed influence from pop artists incorporating such genres as funk and RnB comes off more just a forced simulacra without source other than sickly lyrics, rather than an actual individual effort. 

I don't want to make out that the lyrics are the primary reason for why I can't enjoy this record - and it would be so easy to make it equally the scapegoat for Timberlake's flaw(s) here - because even if we take the vocals out (despite the man's rather smooth falsetto being one of the best in the business, I'd sacrifice it that if it meant removal of the lyrics), when looking at the music at its most critical and structural base, as stated, there's little evidence to suggest that the rather grand seven-plus stretches are justified. In most cases, if it's not simply a repeated loop of the same beat or expelling of groove, the 'remixed' fashion of the music does little to develop what is already a rather sturdy but overly safe-sounding mix. More length ≠ more quality, much in the same way more layers ≠ more quality too. I guess where Timberlake attempts, and succeeds, in balancing decision on length over the reasons for such a length is on the track Let The Groove Get In. As the title suggests, there's an almighty salvo - and a rather tropical, carnival-like delivery as a result - of rhythm and intricacy with how the extroversion of percussion and instrumentation plays to Timberlake's confidence and immediate passion. Everything here feels rather in-place and perfected to suit, and the energy omitted comes off pleasantly across to the listener. Even when the track delves into predictably safe production measures, in harmonizing vocals and music, there's litttle lost in the overall passion of the piece. And in regards to the track's length, the way the music focuses on certain instruments - whether that be the gentle offer of piano, or the click of percussion, or even the string pieces - it doesn't necessarily feel like something that's been tagged-on or left to hopefully evolve on its own. It's reasonably expanded upon, it seems, by Timberlake himself and the slightly stripped-back deliverance works. 

The vibe I get from the opening warm sweep of horns and synths on Mirrors is that we're approaching - or returning - to more a dance-pop suitability for Timberlake's vocals. I'm disappointed then that the song thereafter comes off in the same-old middle-of-the-road safety in beats and meshed production. I guess the main positive here is that Timberlake's vocals are given top priority, rightfully so, even if the themes and accompanying lyrics should have perhaps been left to the backdrop where the cluttered noise of the track's over-layered foundry is based. 'I don't want to lose you now...It's like your my mirror now/Looking and staring back at me/I couldn't get any bigger, with anyone else beside of me.' So even before the half-way mark, and the track devolves into this baffling dribbling of vocals and stripped-back focus on percussion, I'm unfortunately finding myself put off by how forced the music is aligned and pushed together. But I can at least leave this album knowing that I've found myself enjoying - enjoy as in relishing in a particular track's sound and atmospheric/emotive stance - more than one musical occasion. The coastal, late-evening melancholy of closer Blue Ocean Floor has for the most part a backward-playing piano running the course of its duration, and it's this rather dreamy, surreal, almost mopey flutter of texture that gives Timberlake's vocals a sense of depth and distance to them. As we hear some splash of waves and what sounds like a tape cassette being inserted/rejected, the deep and weightless quality to the looping [reversed] piano is what pulls me in, as if caught in this same endless tide of blue ocean. And I'm caught by it so much, that the seven-minute length is - for one of the only times - a just and well-worked decision. Even more-so, I feel a creeping need to hear more of it, as if demanding a longer cut. 

Sadly, this is only one of the moments where Justin Timberlake's divergence from mainstream generalization of sound, and into more interesting sub-fields of pop - both past and present - actually execute in a way that demonstrates both development and an understanding into why he's chosen such variance. For the most part - taking away these factors, and the fact that JT still manages to create some hypnotically catchy lyrical liners - The 20/20 Experience is a thin, single-axis of deceit attempting to make itself out as many things that are in fact just different flavours of the same product. And vocally, while the man's maturity as a singer comes up many a time, there's little to suggest he's moved away personally from the teen-orientated narrative for love and romance; lyrics ranging from the demeaning to the downright embarrassing. Ultimately, what presents itself as a grand apostle of polished pop music - production and layered engineering certainly feeling the most accomplishing in most parts - is nothing short than a meager attempt to get tongues waggling and showcase Timberlake as having the same build of character as he has done years previous. But in result, though his ambition and attitude have grown - with little hesitance and means to withdraw behind the sounds - the sacrifice of development and divergence from what is still a safe context for contemporary pop - love, romance, emotion, the need for one another - clearly shows for the ex-N Sync member. Though the production and means for divulging the man's persona does seem cleanly polished, it's still sacrificially devoid of expansion, thus giving an even saddening linger and assumption that both Timberlake and Timbaland alike aren't interested in the musical aesthetic of change. Rather, what lights up their eyes, is just how much it can generate for them on a personal level and - as is the case with the industry - a financial one too.


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Rustie - Triadzz / Slasherr

If I were asked/begged/forced-against-my-will to compile a Best of...2011 list, featuring only electronic and electronic sub-genre releases of that year, Glaswegian Russell Whyte would definitely been among the top five (possibly top three). Whyte's Rustie moniker in 2011 unleashed to the World, Glass Swords: a mighty crystalline of wonky beats, energized bass and songs that lit up the night as much as they distorted the mind. And if you're willing to repel your focus from dawdling on the fact that the guy has the expertise and knowledge of a thirty year-old hidden beneath that young producer's look, you'll come to see Warp Records once more has its fair share of the new roster of electronic music producers and musicians currently rewriting the rules and redefining the standards for others to attempt matching. While it's been nearly two years since Glass Swords dropped - and this is usually the right gap in time for us to ask when, rather than if, a new album is currently in the works - Rustie still shows no signs in letting go of that acclaimed title as being one of the forefront producers in a new age of electronic music (and all the trends that come packaged with it). The two-track single/EP in the shape of Triadzz / Slasherr combines the former new offering together with the latter single Slasherr, having been released earlier this month. It's Rustie's first offering of 2013 and a fresh, but gleefully welcome return for the thirty year-old.

Triadzz, the first of the two tracks, is in no hesitance to get going. Straight from the off the music is loud, Rustie's dexterity for in-your-face sounds carrying all the same punchy, rudimentary muster of sound you've come to expect from the man. But fortunately, we're seeing him differentiate slightly from his debut sound. Here, we're greeted by a more tribal-like dub approach in its treatment of bass and percussion. Drumbeats aren't necessarily as forward and striking on the ears, but they still carry all the necessary weight and emphasis to make you think something, or anything, is about to unveil itself. And that's exactly what happens. For a three-minute track - which isn't exactly foreign to Rustie's style of composition - the track does well in unleashing what is this rather more extroverted and lambast glitter of synthesizers and drums alike. But the way the track shifts its attention between the two opposing perspectives in such a drastic manner, yet still conveying all the intensity and energy present, is rather satisfying to experience. And with Slasherr, Whyte's earlier lenience towards more suburban and youthfully-optimistic lacing of electronic music appears to receive more of a development. It begins as perhaps one of his more popier and confident sounds to date, but don't let the initial withdraw into slight commercial tone put you off. For Rustie, this gives him the perfect opportunity to dive straight into what is a rather sweet and delicate flurry of garage bass, dubstep playfulness and beats that could easily work to a dance-floor, as much as they could an outdoor stretch to the suburban World he's clearly painting on the conceptual face of his sound.

So while I wouldn't go as far as to say this is a complete expansion on what was a fantastic debut for Rustie, the two tracks that he's presented here definitely demonstrate the Glaswegian moving out into less glittered and mind-melting textures of sound, and onto ground perhaps more closer (and physical) to the World around us. Whether or not Whyte decides on going full-stretch (or full-leather) with what is a rather more bass-trodden fusion of beats and synths, on his sophomore record, remains to be seen. But on what we've seen on from this two-track release, Rustie without question holds as much - if not more - a hunger and drive to sink his teeth deeper into the root of present-day electronic music and give it the numbingly frivolous spray of colour his debut splattered into our heads. Rustie's Triadzz / Slasherr single - now available as a 12" - is out now via Numbers Records.

The Strokes - Comedown Machine

Julian Casablancas once used a guitar amp to create the dirty and fuzzy sound that was wrapped around his vocal. Many years have passed since 2001's Is This It and Casablancas is still attempting to replicate the same sound. The Strokes are aware of how successful their debut album is, which is why they've continuously released something different each time. Having a sound doesn’t necessarily mean it's written in the blood. It's something that defines an artist, and that fuzz vocal and early 2000s indie rock certainly defines The Strokes. Guitar music was on its knees, and then a New York City band came over to the UK with a demo picked up by NME - the rest is written in toilet circuit venues around the world. Even 12 years on, The Strokes can safely release an album without backlash based on the strength of their debut album, Comedown Machine is the return album, the album after mid-career mediocrity, Angles. No matter how The Strokes release their music or market, they'll always have a dedicated fan base. From the mountains of rural Canada to the clustered flat living of central London, The Strokes live on.

Comedown Machine is The Strokes fifth studio album. Many years have passed and few Strokes albums have stayed in the memory. Their job in 2013 is to reignite the flame, take out the trash from Angles and invent something we can listen to, that they can build on. On first impressions, Comedown Machine is exactly what they needed. It takes the extra ear to hear beyond the face value RCA commercialising. The Strokes start strong with "Tap Out", a  track with krautrock influences. It features a quiet Casablancas in a retreated role from his usual frontman presence. He moves over for the instrumentals and top notch percussion. Following this is the pre-release single "All The Time". The fuzzed up Casablancas is back for more and Nick Valensi is here to scoop up the credit. It's a return to form and at track two, sits nicely on the album. 

There's nothing worse than an out of place track, which is why The Strokes have been credited for a career of perfectly picked albums. From Is This It right up to now, they never manage to put a step wrong when it comes to track order and relevance. Comedown Machine is a fresh start for The Strokes. They've had time away from the popular, away from success and now they're back with a full album of post-Angles material. To some, Angles was the end of The Strokes. After coming back from an extensive break, the rustiness never shifted and Casablancas' own musical creativity reached an all-time low contributing to the band. Comedown Machine marks the return of Casablancas, thus the return of The Strokes after his solo album Phrazes for the Young missed the mark.

"Slow Animals" is the reason why The Strokes took a break in the first place. When five guys come together with creative differences and a frontman whose control went walking, all productivity leaves. When describing The Strokes in recent years I’ve said the same things over and over again. This band repeats their music like a broken record. 'Lack of' becomes the operative word. It's what separates the poor music from the good music. The Strokes unfortunately continually disappoint, and Comedown Machine is no different. The Killers-esque "Partners In Crime" is scarily British in synth pop aesthetics. Indie rock bands are becoming reliant on electronics, which is essentially killing the guitar aspects of these bands. How can a five piece relate to an electronic environment, it's hard to pull off and only Radiohead can go on record being the crossover band.

It's not all glitz and glamour on The Strokes fifth album. The five piece have their punk rock / new wave "One Way Trigger". The electronic riff is lovely, reminding listeners of a faster and modern "Golden Brown" by The Stranglers. British synth pop / new wave and punk rock once influenced The Killers - a band who died somewhere between 2006 and 2008. This isn't the music The Strokes were brought up on. Where's the garage rock? Where's the 90s alternative rock? Something is missing from Comedown Machine.

Other than the opening two tracks, Comedown Machine is forgettable. They can create great guitar riffs all they like, and they do on tracks like "80's Comedown Machine" and "Chances", it's what they do with them that destroys them. These tracks have little to no direction. It's a fast paced frenzy from start to finish without much of a structure. Casablancas vocal hardly contributes and time passes by without wandering or thinking about that one interesting musical aspect, because it's non-existent. "Happy Ending" is an improvement over the lacklustre middle section, such as "50/50" where the synthesizers sound outdated and unnecessary for a band that once rocked the world.  

Curiosity killed the cat, and The Strokes won't bring it back. We see this time and time again, indie rock bands going somewhat electronic. In the UK, Editors went full on synthesizer with their third album In This Light and on This Evening, a very average album to follow-up a Joy Division loving career. The difference is Joy Division used synthesizers for emotion and atmosphere rather than a replacement to guitar, and Joy Division never intended to follow a craze like these worldwide indie rock bands. It’s incredible hearing such mediocre material from a band that once released the splendid 2000's guitar classic Is This It. Bands are throwing away what they've made, and they shouldn't do that. Keep it in the closet, lock it away or hand it down, but never throw away something special that defines you. This is what The Strokes are doing on Comedown Machine. Like I said above, this is like a fresh start, but it's a step backwards rather than forwards.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Depeche Mode - Delta Machine

'I was marching to the wrong drum/With the wrong scum/Pissing out the wrong energy' Dave Gahan exclaims rather unreservedly on Wrong, the lead single to Sounds Of The Universe, 2009's great return to form. For Depeche Mode, this one-time running theme of proclaiming such 'wrong' declarations could be read, on a wider scale, in both an objective manner, as much as it is potentially a sarcastic one. For three decades, the [now] three-piece have stood rather out-of-place against a musical culture that strives to seek electronic music's non-organic potentially-stable line of absent-minded lolly-gagging, without knowing what it is exactly that makes the synthetics such an appealing element in sound, in the first place. But also, the working class men (because age is certainly no pleasant thing here) from Essex stand as one of the most important acts to have emerged from 80s Britain; arguably leading what would become both the New Wave identity, and more importantly, the Synth Pop sound, a philosophy proving that rock required more than just the stable guitar/drums/vocal formula that had dominated prior. And here, for the humble synthesizer, there was an opportunity that...yes, it could benefit from the inclusion into an artist's palette. Fast-forward thirty years and those same argumentative types would/could argue Synth Pop is more a stale excuse than it is an underlining identity. But where synths and keyboards are now common place - and the name Korg or Roland run the back walls of many a recording studio - Depeche Mode continue to push out vastly textural and richly venturous synth pop that is both gestural to their former 80s New Wave glory, as much it shows it's cards to the blissful newcomers whom hold a pair or two, only for their Essex seniors to sit fully-grinning with a full house.

But four years after what was more synth than the title Synth Pop might suggest in contemporary times, does Delta Machine stand any more tentatively taller or worthwhile, or is DM's 13th studio output as welcome and needed as the number 13 is so often depicted in the Western World? In terms of stature - and as much the Depeche fan that I am - I must proclaim that the album comes off rather overshadowed and minor in the face of the band's back catalog. While ambitious and passionately fueled, the album falters in lapses over its thirteen-track hour-long duration. What we have is an album heavily focused on synthesizer hooks, laced beats and vocals that are as much wane and faint in one part and bluntly strong in others. Welcome To My World grinds its way into the starting blocks, industrial-like electro hooks bobbing and throbbing against the empty backdrop, Dave Gahan's vocals a lot more straight and bare against what is a bass-heavy offering. But as violins jaggedly creep into the mix, the music lifts itself from off the industrial ground it's treading and out into the lofty air that Gahan's raised tones entice us in. As the track adds more mechanical drums and the rhythm becomes more stern but rampant, there's definitely more an intense and crucially pin-pointed direction in how the track develops. And even in the song's still-minimal swatch, there's enough evidence to suggest the band know how to use such simple electronic leads to create denser, more provoking atmospheres.

So it's rather disappointing then that the album from this point on fails - in terms of structure and expectation - to meet that same height of interest in its use of minimal beats and focus on synthesizer leads. Angel, though not the first to demonstrate, is the first to clearly express Gahan's lyrical focus on religious subject matter. 'The angel of love was upon me, and Lord I felt so small/My legs beneath me weaken, and I begin to crawl.' And though he expresses this in quite the bold and flamboyant ting, it doesn't excuse what is still a rather amateurish and skeletal void of word choice. Even if the crunchy sparkle of synths and sharp hit of drum beats try to take centre stage here, it doesn't even begin to drown out what is clearly Gahan's show here, and sadly, it's rather more melodramatic than perhaps what is required. Ascending in that same religious perspective to lead single Heaven and we at least get some consolidated peace in Gahan's more intricately emotive and focused richness of vocals - the man's signature smooth baritone stretching across the track's rather melancholic whimper of electric guitars and off-shoot percussion. It's no surprise then why this was chosen as the official musical promotion for this record, given how more melodic and structurally dense it comes off as. Though as you'll soon discover, you'd rather wish it was one of the gems you'd come to discover, than the track you'd already recognized and affiliated with, prior to this album's first listening.

But that's not before we're greeted by some interesting play on this supposed more minimal choice in electronics. My Little Universe is rather the affectingly attractive mash-up of sub-techno wandering and acid house tweaks. You can almost come to visualize the lights glimmering on the beat patterns of the machines, yet it's the track's quirky rhythm and surrounding space that allows the sounds to breathe and expand. Gahan's vocals may not be the most leading or complex in terms of word choice - 'Here I am king/I decide everything/I let no one in' - but given how simple and naive the electronics come off in, it all fits neatly together, even if the synth's sumptuous expansion into more acidic momentum does leave its listeners wanting more. When Depeche Mode are at their most engaging - be it emotionally trickling like some thickly gloom - Slow treats the mood with that same slow uncurling of mopey instrumentation and heavy-dropping beats. The swooning riffs of guitars and descending drums certainly add (or perhaps remove) colour to the track, and even Gahan's lyrics and tonal delivery, emphasize the rather sweeping veil the track slowly crawls its way out from under. Broken follows suit in a rather more upbeat lead of synthesizer beats and halogen-like electronics that tend to flicker and spark from out the darkly surroundings. But even with this, there's still that presence of a more tense and pessimistically-viewed perspective, 'You can make it, I will be there/You were broken from the start'.

I have no problem with lyrics that as far from bliss and any other blinding allure of happiness and promise - it would be rather close-minded to limit yourself to music that aims to be this pure, self-assuring state. But if the band decide on sticking to either the same mood set, or even the same subtexts and concept (be it religion, faith, romance), you'd expect some more variance...or, at the very least, have these tracks - minimal or not - be fleshed out. Sadly, what may present itself as minimal or secluded in its stance, doesn't entirely hold the credential and emotional impact to back its rather safe and stripped-back approach. I don't deny Depeche Mode's skill in crafting some interesting synthesizer hooks and richly textured beats. But the way they're presented, and the way they play out from start-to-finish on a particular track, makes itself out less a fully-fulfilled track and more just an idea floating around waiting to be complete. Tracks like The Child Inside demonstrate the band can generate some emotive context behind their choice of synth tones, but even with Gahan's deeply-passionate focus on lyrics, the way the sounds dither and show little drive or energy makes the overall song feel rather deflated and incomplete. Likewise on the track Soft Touch/Raw Nerve, the way the song begins immediately with a punchy, stern delivery of beats alludes to a promising delivery thereafter. Take that away, and the emptiness becomes clear to see. It feels rather reliant - almost too reliant - on its main drive, and even then the main beat of the piece doesn't hold as much development and substance to carry the song through.

Alone offers some promise because where the track relies on its bass-heavy roll of beats, the way the sounds vibrate and spread about the space creates some interesting echo and relay of an after-image in what is a rather sprawled and distant track to begin with. And so too the accompanying climb of high-reaching synthesizers - that shine as much as they flutter, like candle-light - create a much more engaging and intense atmosphere in the music. It's rather more symphonic and scaled-up because of it, and because of it, the track succeeds in crafting something that is more for the listener's mind as much as it's for the ears. But I do question at times, especially on Soothe My Soul just what it is Dave Gahan offers in his vocal swing, but more-so, why such a direct and frontal role is needed throughout. True, the chorus cries of there being 'only one way to soothe my soul' are richly deserved. But the accompanying verses of the piece, could have easily been stripped back verbally and left for more an instrumental emphasis - especially when the part-glitchy, part-jittery synthesizers are some of the best on the album. And the music is benefited even more by the appearance of, surprise surprise, some thorough meshed strumming from Martin Gore's guitar playing. Goodbye sees Depeche Mode end on a rather blues-rock tone as synths pierce in stinging bursts in one part and drums violently clatter against the foreground in others. Though the track title may have felt out-of-place anywhere else, I feel - given how less a development there is here too - that this would have been better placed somewhere else on the album. There is some rocketing springs of guitars and coiled synths in the closing section of the track, but even this feels less a fitting climax, and more just a bold outburst to attempt ending on a high.

In hindsight, the inevitability that Depeche Mode will have invested heavily on synthesizers predominantly running the show on Delta Machine, was always clear to see. And yet, speaking both as a fan and as a critic, I longed (and probably still do long) for a time when the band were more for the inclusion of guitars and physical drums as opposed to relying on utterly mechanical sounds. Much like bands nowadays that include synths alongside the more common-term palette of guitars and [physical] drums for their outfits, I would have preferred Depeche Mode to see guitars and drums in the same light. As much as we hope to see any band return to creating sounds of yesteryear that still to this day remain with us - and this speaks true about DM fans - it may be the case where we have to come to terms that albums such as Violator and Songs of Faith And Devotion will never surface in twenty-first-century form. For Depeche Mode, their 13th output could arguably be the last before they disappear either in credible investment of our time...or disappear altogether. While Delta Machine isn't universally bad or lacking, there's a clear gap in its development, and the visible potential screaming in numerous spots, is tragic in how it goes uncalled; lost to the empty silence lingering in many of the album's thirteen vague offerings. Where DM succeed, is where their established base for melodic synth pop reflects the emotions and atmospheres envisaged. But where they try their hand at minimizing the approach and going for direct emphasis on the few elements present, it not only quite simply lays itself open to criticism. Perhaps my hopes for that classic late 80's/early 90's identity are just too much for these Essex lads. But even then, and for a man who strives for perfection of electronics that are both crafted and considered for full composite format, I find less here than what I was expecting - and more than likely, what others may have come to expect likewise.


Born Ruffians - Birthmarks

Born Ruffians released their debut album Red, Yellow & Blue on Warp Records in 2008. Their unlikely sophomore album Say It failed to reach the indie rock anthem status their debut album had, with the quite essential "Hummingbird". Birthmarks is being released on local Canadian record label Paper Bag Records, and not Warp. The glorified status that Warp brings is often under looked, with Born Ruffians capitalising from Warp, a record known and appreciated by electronic audiences. The indie rock, independent status and localness of Paper Bag Records suits the Canadian quartet. 

Lead single "Needle" was released in February; the whistling and reluctant song was Born Ruffians return to the soft scene they ditched for indie rock, NME compilations in 2006. They sing: "I belong to no one, a song without an album," on "Needle", a start-up of lyricism with literal meanings. The band known for their fast-paced songs standout when the tempo is slowed down, the bass becomes an accompaniment instrument and the reverberation takes over as the focus. It's what Birthmarks is all about. It's a band progressing, developing and taking what they already know to give something new. A change of label, a change of audience and a change of direction is what needed post-2010 was. The Canadians have certainly taken this, as second track "6-5000" reveals. In name, a reference to the oldest telephone number in New York City, in song, a smooth and reverb heavy follow-up to "Needle". 

It's the soft and lacklustre material on Birthmarks that ultimately decides its fate. With such past material as "Retard Canard" and "Little Garçon", it's a surprise that Born Ruffians have almost pulled the plug. The electric guitar riff madness has been replaced by reflecting vocal hooks delivered by Luke Lalonde. Percussion has certainly improved, as has the atmosphere these tracks carry. Tracks such as "Dancing On the Edge of Our Graves" and "With Her Shadow" are good examples of this. It's the middle passage that brings Birthmarks down. "Cold Pop" does little, while "Golden Promises" starts and ends slow, with Lalonde's hovering. 

From "Ocean's Deep", the listener can take more than the indie pop, Fang Island like material of the opening two tracks. It's a faster, more alternative track with a lovely vocal hook on the chorus. There's no denying Lalonde has a good singing voice and this is the track that takes Born Ruffians out of the Warp bracket and into a sort of North American alternative rock that can be considered for shopping in Sears, or John Lewis if you're in the UK. At times, the lyrics on Birthmarks straight up sound and read cheesy. Lalonde sings: "I am just a lotus and you are a vine," on the fourth track "Permanent Hesitation". The first 50 seconds are quite irrelevant and unnecessary to the track, as the following rhythm guitar takes control, however the original vocal cheesiness and pop-like structure returns.

On far too many occasions, Born Ruffians sound commercial. For instance with the archetypal titled "Cold Pop", where instead of using the three and a half minutes to fulfil and interesting track, they decide to waste with dodgy structures that fail to grasp attentions and ultimately lead in no direction. "Rage Flows" is another one of these tracks where the quartet fail to live up to expectation. "So Slow" also follows suit. There's a massive difference between the lovely direction of the album opener and these mediocre mid album tracks. 

Birthmarks could have been much better. Born Ruffians are lacking the basics, and they're missed. The instrumentals seem to be lacking a personal touch; it's just a straight forward ride without any surprises or noise. "Needle" is the highlight of the album, and that's the first track. After that Birthmarks becomes something of a hindrance from the origins of Born Ruffians. It's not the worst record they could have made - it's the direction they needed to take. Without a fulfilled track to track structure, their third album falls underneath itself. It doesn't excite or relax, it fills a void, and a void that Warp won't miss if Born Ruffians continue down this path.


Bonobo - The North Borders

2010 - as all years end up becoming - belong to a select few of artists and bands in the music World. Sinking deeper into the biosphere of such a World - close to the marshy subterranean sweep of downtempo-come-trip-hop music - Bonobo's Black Sands was one of the more individualistic, artist-focused triumphs of the year. The British producer's fifth album - and forth for Ninja Tune - was a shining (but not glaring) example into treating technique-driven instrumentation with just the right amount of influence from electronic music; humane vocals given the synthetic sample treatment, yet still coming off melodic and organic enough in their innocence. Black Sands, to end, was one of those moments when artifice and technology helped, rather than hindered, conventional instrumental song-writing. Yes, there were synths, and sure there was some pleasant production values, but where others falter, Simon Green's (real name behind the Bonobo moniker) increased refining of his methods lead him to create one of 2010's finer electronic [produced] albums. It's taken three years for him to develop a follow-up and The North Borders lands on a pleasant stream of releases that have, as noted, seemingly been building towards a better-sought goal. But with 2010 seeing Bonobo meeting a point that felt as fresh and as achieved as his palette for downtempo electronics could muster, the question now becomes: where does Bonobo go from here?

Perhaps the border in question - as suggested in the title - sees Bonobo on this record meeting his standards and, possibly - unable, more likely - to reach for anything more. First Fires is a closeted glimpse back to Green's early influence of hip-hop beats and slow RnB grooves. Grey Reverend's guest vocals certainly give the music a very gracious and smooth transition too - music accomplishing what mode of relaxed, sun-glazed textures it's set out to create. And between each murmured beat and the treading percussion that follows it, there's a shuffled yet fond momentum to the way the music slowly unfolds. But maybe too this record is a precursor or a suggestive underlining as to the limits and boundaries that confine this particular sub-genre of electronic music. Perhaps, as we come to learn, both points end up being raised regarding Green's jurisdiction and means of evolution in his music. Emkay follows with more of an energy about the way the drumbeats are laid out, and while we're still treated to a familiarity of softening keys that add a silky texture to the piece, the music alone doesn't necessarily entice or excite its listener beyond its clicked, head-bobbing appeal. It's the vocals however that do justice, and as expected, Bonobo's sample-heavy emphasis on repetition and rhythm is what makes itself known best of all. There's a 2-step/early millennium vibe coming from the way the vocals and percussion tie in with one another here. And while the backing layer of analogous synths and keys do little to add any depth to the music, the less-electronic parts are what keep me hooked.

Percussion is of course an element of Bonobo's music that comes up trumps on this album. As Cirrus demonstrated quite magnificently when it first dropped - and still does even in its full near-six minute version - there's no getting away from how rich and cultivating the mix of percussion instruments are here. From the bitter swatches of stick-hits to the shake of what sound like tambourines, to the chime of bells, there's something for everyone here. But more importantly, Green doesn't let the over-extensive use slip out of his control - the inflating progression of bass pulls the track up and gives it a rather curved physique and for that, the music comes across rather more impacting and direct because of it. But even with this, it's the drum work and well-sought use of percussion that remains the highlight here, and given how these sounds appear to have no real set age or quality to them - some instruments sounding sanitized and monotonous; others sounding as if there's still dust lying about the corners - it only adds to the diversity and wide parameter of sounds Bonobo has clearly delved his creative hands into. In that regard, I can commend how Green manages to arrange and organize what is, on the face of things, a heap of instruments and sounds. So to see him excel with what is a large amount of ideas and compositions, it's rather unsettling to see that the more simpler pieces come off rather sluggish and sloppily delivered.

As you approach [what I will designate] the second quarter of this record, it feels more and more as if Bonobo is retreating once more into this fail-safe all-is-well height of optimism that many a downtempo sound often tries to project as original, but in conclusion, just comes off rather dull and done-before. Heaven For The Sinner's stop-start clunk of drums does little to disprove my feelings that the track never really gets going or even looks to drive itself forth. Even when Erykah Badu finds herself pushed between the loop of percussion and lavish string samples, even her voice loses what momentum and sequential flow it tries to muster. In the end, despite what fluttered and wavy textures the string instruments offer, the track feels more and more the equivalent of turning a key in an ignition, only to hear the engine fail to get going. I think then the reason why I prefer Sapphire over the former track then, is the way this particular piece doesn't go out of its way to make out like its atmosphere, or even its audible stance is anything ground-breaking or, put bluntly, intriguing for the outside audience. The tempo is more upbeat; drums come off punchier and rather passionately against what is still a very blissful and dreamy view of keys and strings. But as noted, Bonobo's skill with chopping vocals and arranging them into patterns, gives the overall feel of a track like this, a sense of mystery, yet without any of the unfathomable obscurity that often discourages us from sinking further into it.

This is what I feel is the most crucial outcome for a field of this caliber: immersion. It's clear from Green's treatment of synths and production techniques - via his use of delayed positioning and melding of synthetic and organic into one swirling slick of colours perhaps not far off from the tones presented on the cover sleeve - that he favours immersion over expression; a feeling of involvement as opposed to surveying and understanding in that regard. Unfortunately, where I feel Bonobo is trying to create the most depth by blurring the musical boundaries between instruments, the songs come off rather stuck in first gear - never really aiming or even sighting a particular goal. Rather, just floating about an endless space and expecting part of its being to do the rest. Tracks like Towers offer moments rather than fully-realized spectacles. While the track does feel intended to lay in what is this nestled vestibule of percussion hits and blurred keys, by the time the listener feels the track is getting somewhere, it's already done and finished with. Instrumentally, there's enough to suggest that a certain atmosphere or feeling of engagement can (and has been) created, but as far as actually immersing its listener, it still comes off rather foreign and devoid of any real solid ground to base itself off. It all feels up in the air; darting rather than directing. As is the case with Don't Wait, while Green makes some interesting tie-in's with the vocals around the crumbly texture of drums and bobbling electronics, as a whole the track has very little to make itself stand out and be accounted for. But even if taken as an individually-marked piece, there's sparse development and textural creativity with what these layers of sound may be thriving to create. While I wouldn't say this caters to being merely background filler, to say this music comes off directly frontal and brimming with strength would also be a critical error of judgement.

It's fortunate then - though on closer inspection, can be equally worrying if we're relating back to the idea of previous albums already succeeding at said means of production - that a track like Know You shows up and enlightens us in what it is that got me interested in Bonobo's music in the first place. Again, there's an emphasis on more early 00's garage rhythms, but more surprisingly, the track rather takes its time to develop and build to what is its main vocal accompaniment. The best part of listening to these type of sampled vocals looping in such a hiccuped fashion is working out what they're attempting to say. What sounds like 'The more you know/The less you live' could be completely wrong, and translate as something else to another fellow listener. But away from the slightly cryptic analysis of words, what gives this track its edge over its counterparts is Bonobo's tantalizing focus on rhythm and how the tension present in the percussion only seeps through into the positioning of the vocals and glistened brightness of the synths that rise up from beneath near the track's end. And the way Antenna follows this straight-after is a welcome return to more positive listening experiences. Green's more choppier incorporation of instruments actually suits his style better, and it's a fond reminder as to what Black Sands did so well at achieving. There's a flutter of woodwind here and some piano work there, and amidst the track's stern placement of drums and shimmered percussion, there's definitely more of a charismatic charm about the textures created here. To further prove that this can all be achieved without long-winded progression, the track is the shortest of the thirteen offered - clocking in just over three-and-a-half minutes. The closing moments of the album - in the shape of fairly warming seclusion, Transits & Pieces - offer some more insight into how lyrical vocals work alongside sampled ones, but even with Bonobo's layered efforts, and his focus on similarly warmer-treated synth tones and percussion, again such attempts leave me feeling rather out-of-place and unsure what or where it is the track is longing to reach for.

As the opening line to the closing track offers, this album does indeed feel like it's quality and its longevity 'lies in the eyes of the beholder'. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that Bonobo has rather become accustomed to simply letting his fairly modest instrumentation retain its sought independence of discovery, and as a result, has forgotten to hold at least some dictation over what sort of atmosphere or feeling this music is meant to be expressing. What listeners will find on an album like this, is that the music rather ignores its audience and feels more-and-more as if it's too busy asking itself even more problematic personal questions. As a whole however, The North Borders comes off optimistic and charmingly pleasant, and doesn't necessarily feel as if it's wanting to show itself suffering from, not so much an identity crisis, but a struggle to find an appealing one. But rarely does it explain, or even elaborate, on its choice of whisking such string, key and percussive instrumentation together. Where Green succeeds - fortunately in a fair few moments on this record - is when his stern production focuses on just one area of instrumentation, or, his established ideas return to the forefront and vocals are of this pleasant musical-like flutter that is both dreamy texturally, but are fairly concrete in presence likewise. For the most part, Bonobo's sound comes off rather [emotively] lost in its own bliss. As if unintentionally fulfilling its title, the music feels as if it's reached the borders of its own specialism; its potential maximized and itself knowing not how to expand and develop. Had this not have held the same intriguing flurry of cool, calming tones and hues I feel have seeped through to the listener, this might have been a worse outcome. But even with Green's key expertise and fondness for instrumental deliverance - because of how continuously striving for an answer and direction this album feels - by the end of things, a warped variant of the original question emerges from out the settled dust: where is it we're going again?