It must be weird when your obscure 10-year-old side project suddenly vaults over your main gig and into the international spotlight, but that’s pretty much exactly what happened to Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber when they recorded a little tune with fellow Canadian Sarah McLachlan called “Silence” for their ninth studio album, Karma, in 1997. Prior to Karma’s release, Leeb and Fulber were mainly known for their electro-industrial band Front Line Assembly; by the end of 1999, when “Silence” had pretty much conquered the airwaves, they were probably sick of explaining to interviewers that yes, they were the same Delerium who had been putting out ambient albums like the Spheres series and neo-pagan death folk meditations like Morpheus since the late ‘80s.
Calling “Silence” huge is an understatement on a par with calling The Lord of the Rings an “action flick”; at last count, it’s turned up on at least 100 different DJ mix albums and compilations, which has to be some kind of record. When previously obscure artists achieve that kind of success, even with the help of a powerhouse collaborator like McLachlan, they tend to do one of two things: either take the mountain of money, bid the recording industry a cheery “fuck you” and retreat into some private studio somewhere to make music that sounds nothing like Their One Big Hit, or mechanically mine the same artistic vein over and over again in the desperate hope that there’s more gold where that came from. In Delerium’s case, there was a definite split; while Leeb went on to record another Delerium album, the decidedly Karma-like Poem, Fulber jumped ship and started his own project, the outstanding Conjure One, which greatly expanded the Delerium ethno-dance palette by incorporating stronger world music influences and harder-edged dancefloor beats.
Fulber has returned to the Delerium fold for Chimera, but he brings little of the Conjure One magic with him in what seems to have been a limited role—he shares songwriting credit on just six of the album’s 13 tracks. In other words, Delerium is pretty much now officially Leeb’s baby, and unfortunately, he still really hasn’t shaken the “Silence” monkey off his back. Treacly echoes of that song haunt the lazy trip-hop beats, perfunctory medieval choral samples and winsome female vocals featured on nearly all these tracks, like syrup stains left over from some amazingly sweet, rich dessert. Yes, “Silence” was a great tune, but there was a sense of discovery about it, and it was helped immensely by a great guest vocalist. None of the 10 singers featured on Chimera equal Sarah McLachlan’s appeal, and they’re working with material that feels pretty secondhand.
In fairness to the vocalists, it’s the material more than the performances that make Chimera feel like a watered-down version of Delerium’s past glories. The always-excellent Zoe Johnston, of Bent and Faithless fame, can’t lift the opening track “Love” above the level of the merely pretty, and Kristy Thirsk’s presence on “Returning” only draws attention to how derivative the track is of her previous Delerium collaborations, especially the excellent “Flowers Become Screens” and “Incantation” off Karma’s predecessor, the underrated 1994 album Semantic Spaces.
The other return vocalist on Chimera, Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer, grabs both of the album’s best moments. The bouncy folk-pop of “Run For It” doesn’t sound much like Delerium, but it at least has the merit of being catchy, like an Enigma remix of a Michelle Branch tune. “Orbit of Me” doesn’t sound much like Delerium, either, but it’s by far the album’s best track, a stunningly gorgeous piece of dream pop that recalls early Bjork and Cocteau Twins. Credit co-songwriters Carmen Rizzo, Kent Stephany and Jamie Muhoberac for this and the subsequent track “Magic”, which would be just as good if it weren’t for the excruciatingly breathy voice and vapid lyrics of Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise.
Other guest vocalists range from the mildly interesting (Margaret Far, who does a fair-to-middling McLachlan impersonation over the soothing Satie-inspired chords of “Just a Dream”) to the inoffensively generic (Jael, Nerina Pallot) to the downright awful. Into this latter category drop, with a resounding thud, efforts by Rani, whose easy listening caterwauls are exactly as dreadful as the sappy “Fallen” deserves, and Rachel Fuller, who was recorded and is accompanied by Pete Townshend—Pete Townshend!—on the ghastly “Touched”. How could the genius behind all those classic Who tunes lend his talents to Fuller’s meandering, tuneless delivery and greeting-card lyrics? Will somebody please stop Pete before he tarnishes his legacy any further?
Special mention must be made of Sultana, just because her track, “Forever After”, is at least different—I mean, when was the last time you heard a chick rapping in Turkish? But here again, Leeb’s arrangement, apart from some grandiose Middle Eastern strings and turntablist riffs, is pure by-the-numbers. Making a Turkish hip-hop siren sound virtually interchangeable with the English-singing pixies featured elsewhere on Chimera is no mean feat, but Leeb manages it.
Mention must also be made of the album’s two instrumentals, on which the hand of Rhys Fulber is most evident but which also, it must be said, sound like sleepy retreads of his and Leeb’s Semantic Spaces and Karma heyday. “Serenity” is all trip-hop beats and ethereal piano and electronics floating in and out of a traditional choral piece—elements that will all be eminently familiar to Delerium fans—while “Eternal Odyssey” actually has the chutzpah to sample the most overplayed modern classical piece of all time, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. I suppose hip-hop artists are still sampling James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”, too, but there’s no excuse for laziness no matter what genre you’re working in.
And that, regrettably, is the vibe that permeates Chimera more than any other: laziness. Apart from Leigh Nash’s contributions, nothing on Delerium’s latest either breaks any new ground or approaches the quality of their best previous work. Try as they might, Leeb and Fulber still have not figured out how to escape the echoes of the sound of “Silence”.