Music

The Chemical Brothers return to their block rockin’ best on Born in the Echoes.

By Dave Faulkner.

The Chemical Brothers’ Born in the Echoes

The Chemical Brothers
Credit: Courtesy EMI Music Australia

The Chemical Brothers are in a very strange place. Once hailed as musical futurists, the nightclub revolution they helped to create now looks elsewhere for its leaders. Hard to believe but their debut album Exit Planet Dust celebrated its 20th birthday last week, and next Friday they release their eighth studio album. Born in the Echoes may not eclipse their astonishing debut, or its two outstanding follow-ups, Dig Your Own Hole and Surrender, but I count it as one of their best. These old musical revolutionaries have still got a fire in their bellies.

It’s been a longstanding tradition for The Chemical Brothers to release a club-clobbering “Electronic Battle Weapon” – a single specially released for DJs – ahead of any new album, and number 11 in their arsenal was launched in late April. “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” opens with a sweeping synthesised whoosh as a pulsating, clacking groove slowly rises from beneath, sounding for all the world like a phalanx of high-tech hospital monitors. The vital signs are good and the patient appears healthy. The listener is immediately wrong-footed as the song’s backbeat appears “reversed”, landing on the 1 and 3 beats. Even the arrival of a solid kick drum doesn’t dispel this feeling. It’s only after the vocals join in that your brain can finally unscramble the true orientation of the timing. I’ve heard this song many times now and its intro never fails to trick me. Regardless, its groove is intoxicating. The vocals were sampled from a 1996 house track, an a cappella mix of “Brighter Days” by Big Moses (featuring Kenny Bobien). This is a cause for celebration – The Chemical Brothers sampling and reconnecting with their house music roots. And it is just the first of many welcome returns on Born in the Echoes. As I said, the vital signs are looking good.

Q-Tip is hip-hop royalty and will always be a welcome visitor to The Chemical Brothers’ world. The rapper takes centre stage on “Go”, the album’s second track and its first single. He first worked with the Chem’s on “Galvanise”, from 2005’s Push the Button, another album that marked a rejuvenation of their sound. I have to admit that when I first heard “Go” I dismissed it as a bit of fluff or, worse, a desperate attempt to gain clicks in the EDM marketplace. The cheesy keyboard riffs in the choruses felt lightweight and a little out of character on first listen. After a few more plays, however, I realised those fruity synth parts revisit the playful exuberance of breakbeat tracks from the ’80s. Suffice to say, I now love both them and the song.

“Under Neon Lights” comes next, taking Born in the Echoes down a less-travelled path, into a kind of nocturnal dreamscape. Art-rocker St. Vincent relates a grim fairytale of a girl on an apparently suicidal journey. Hints of Krautrock, folk and psychedelia abound, as they have elsewhere in the Brothers’ work, but the blend has never been so beguiling. Dark musical spectres hover on the periphery, threatening to turn St. Vincent’s bizarre reverie into a nightmare. Mercifully, the song’s creators manage to keep their macabre impulses in check.

As quickly as “Under Neon Lights” ends “EML Ritual” jumps in, maintaining the pace and the tension. The Chemical Brothers have always programmed their albums like a DJ set and this is one of their most satisfying mixtapes yet.

Earlier I mentioned welcome returns, but Ali Love wouldn’t necessarily have been the first name on my wish list of collaborators to reappear on a Chemical Brothers album. They last worked together on “Do It Again” from 2007’s We Are the Night, and that song was a prominent part of the musical malaise that afflicted the sixth album. All parties seemed to be grasping at straws back then, trying to make mediocre ideas into something more substantial. But Love’s contribution to “EML Ritual” wipes away any past transgressions. He intones the lyrics like a Buddhist chant before the vocals split into a cascade of multi-tracked layers. It is only at the end of this, the fourth song, that one of The Chemical Brothers’ fabled, fucked-up synth monstrosities takes the musical spotlight for the first time. Malevolence and paranoia have always been a feature of their work and those feelings are often engendered by industrial-strength barbarity such as this. Listeners, beware: if you can’t withstand jolts of sonic ugliness then you’d best steer clear of The Chemical Brothers, live and on record. Personally, I love them for it.

DJing has always been crucial to The Chemical Brothers’ development. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands first met in a history tutorial at Manchester University in 1989. Both had chosen that city for the same reason: it was home to the most important club in the world, The Haçienda, and the Madchester scene born of it. It wasn’t long before the two students caught the DJ bug themselves and started their own club night, Naked Under Leather, at a local pub. After graduating, they moved to London and a residency at The Heavenly Social, where they began to turn clubland on its ear with their kitchen-sink mixture of rock, soul, house and whatever tracks they themselves had been working on during the week. Encouraged, they put together Exit Planet Dust in only three weeks. The impact of this debut album was seismic. Exit Planet Dust did for dance music what Smells Like Teen Spirit had done for rock a few years earlier, and in many ways their album’s impact has been more enduring. Their “big beat” created a Big Bang that has been expanding ever since, spawning a multiverse of dance/electronica genres.

All these years after the fact, Rowlands and Simons still like to test their latest grooves on audiences during DJ sets. As Rowlands explained in a 2012 interview with radio station X103.9 in Bogota, Colombia: “We DJ because it feeds directly into what we do when we’re in the studio. We’ll be excited about it when we’re in our room and we’re bugging out to it, and then when we play it [to other people] we think, if only it did something a bit different at this moment.”

By track five, Born in the Echoes is truly down the rabbit hole. “I’ll See You There” features chopped up loops of live drums blended into a maelstrom of filtered synths, distorted guitars and riotous samples. This stomping track shows the Brothers can still serve up a big-beat masterpiece whenever the mood takes them. “Just Bang” follows hard on its heels and this is one where the title says it all. Think hardcore drum ’n’ bass for the Berlin/Berghain crowd and one helluva club banger. It’s the Brothers doing what they’ve always done best: instrumental dance music filtered through a bewildering array of audio trickery. Their “songs” have always been as much about sound effects as melody. As Rowlands told another interviewer in 2007: “We’re not progressing to be songwriters, like, someone else’s idea of a songwriter. For us still, a noise [going] ‘bwaah’ … means as much as some heartfelt ballad.”

The Chemical Brothers’ music, and electronic music in general, has always enjoyed the cachet of being futuristic and forward thinking, mainly because the technology used to make it is ever changing and increasingly sophisticated. Funnily enough, Rowlands has always pooh-poohed that notion: “People really want to see music going forward, as progression, but for us it’s not at all, you know? Music goes round and round, and from side to side.” He said this to a Canadian interviewer way back in 1997, and has said the same thing many times since. “Music doesn’t get better, you know, there’s no progression in music. That’s a kind of 1950s concept of the future, isn’t it? We’ve got no time for any of those people who think that electronic music is the future … and to get rid of rock, or something. That doesn’t make any sense to us. We take influences from all over and so does everyone else, and it’s not gonna replace any other music, you know? It’s just existing.”

The album’s title track, like a lot of the album, is elegantly restrained. Sure, there is the requisite sturm und drang when required, but The Chemical Brothers are mostly interested in taking us with them on a journey rather than leaving us bloodied in their wake. Cate Le Bon’s voice is soothing and otherworldly at the same time. The lyrics could be seen as their manifesto:

In my mind I could see rings of sound following me.

I was caught in between.

I was born in the echoes.

No Chemical Brothers album is complete without elements of rapture and beauty, usually somewhere towards the end of the track-listing. It is almost a cliché of the trance genre but it’s a template that they themselves invented on those early, landmark albums. “Radiate” is in some ways one of the most adventurous tracks they’ve ever done, a kind of sonic sculpture capturing all of their elusive qualities in a single soundscape. The song closes with a sliced-and-diced vocal sample: “Just ra-di-a-a-a-a-t-t-t-t-tt-tt-e…” I’m sure it’s no accident that it echoes a similar device used in “It Doesn’t Matter” on their second album, Dig Your Own Hole.

“Radiate” is so poignant I almost wanted the album to stop right there, but Rowlands and Simons still have an ace up their sleeve. “Wide Open” is quite simply one of the most perfect pop songs they have ever created. It has incredibly tender lyrics and their celebrity guest, Beck, sings them wonderfully. Despite everything I, and they, might have said previously – about not wanting to write conventional songs and not needing ring-in guest vocalists – this song does the exact opposite, and brilliantly. Once again they are taking a glorious risk, but they never compromise the adventurous qualities that have always made their sound so unique. I predict you’ll be hearing this song everywhere soon – and you won’t mind a bit.

On their first three albums – some say four – The Chemical Brothers issued a musical call to arms that is still being heeded by an innumerable army of laptop warriors. Even so, they’ve never been beaten at their own game. The thought in 2015 that any album could galvanise an entire dance community the way they did on their first three records is probably asking for too much. But who knows? The revolutionaries of old may yet again rouse the rabble to kick over the traces of mediocrity and storm the barricades. Although it’s taken them 16 years, with Born in the Echoes The Chemical Brothers have finally crafted an album that can stand in the same lofty company as their magnificent early triumvirate. Despite its title, this is no faint echo of past glories. It’s a resounding eclat of new-found enthusiasm and creative ingenuity. Indispensable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Brothers in arms". Subscribe here.

Dave Faulkner
is a musician best known as frontman of Hoodoo Gurus. He is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.

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