Ah, the side project—that glorious opportunity for artists to explore the fringes of their creativity without abiding by a main concern’s more established template. Or, as is more often the case, a loophole for major musicians to release half-baked, under-developed, or just plain bad albums without being on the receiving end of too much flack. “Oh, it’s a side-project. Nevermind, the new Chilli Peppers record is out soon…” Etc.
Insert two of Scotland’s most prolific songwriters—JP Reid, aka The Dragon of Sucioperro, and Simon Neil, aka The Atmosphere of Biffy Clyro—into the above scenario and you have a potentially disastrous situation. Duke Pandemonium’s predecessor in this conceptual trilogy of albums, The Magnificent Duke, was classic side project fare: utterly bewildering, crazily experimental, and occasionally ingenious. But, where that record got away with its shortcomings by having hardcore fans of its creators as its main fan-base, Duke Pandemonium has a serious disadvantage. Biffy Clyro, lest we forget, are on the verge of a major worldwide breakthrough, and more eyes are on Simon Neil than ever before. So if ever there was a case when a side project needed to deliver the goods, this is it.
It’s a blessed relief, then, that not only does Duke Pandemonium deliver, but it does so while being blatantly and joyfully aware of its unique situation. All the nonsense that made up The Magnificent Duke’s oddball world is still in place, but this time we get electro dance, ass-shaking funk, and understated pop, shot through with wry humour and reckless abandon. On opener “Heartburn”, Neil does his best Donna Summer impression, and “Rubber Lover” samples Billy Joel in a song, according to the title at least, about contraception. Colourful chaos, thy name is Marmaduke Duke. Everything is summed up in one of “Erotic Robotic”’s (I promise I’m not making this up) frantic refrains: “We’re Dragon and Atmos and we don’t need to be liked”.
Of course, there’s a downside to all this merriment. How can you seriously consider a record whose creators are so aware of its flaws that they laugh at you for looking? You can’t, and you shouldn’t try, but that’s what critics are for. In this light, Duke Pandemonium works best when it showcases Neil and Reid’s combined sense of melody and pop smarts. “Kid Gloves”, probably the album’s highlight, is up there as one of the best pop songs in recent years, and “Je Suis Un Funky Homme”, despite its nonsensical title, will stay in your head for several days after you’ve heard it. As a result though, the album suffers where it abandons melody and goes back to the ridiculous, The Magnificent Duke-style.
Aforementioned “Heartburn” really leaves no impression despite some scintillating beats, and seven-minute long odyssey “Demon” is an exercise in irritation, at least for its first half. If that song has a saving grace, the fact that it’s a knowing wink to some of The Magnificent Duke’s more esoteric moments will have to be it. But by ‘esoteric’ I really mean annoying, and do you really want to repeat annoying ideas on two albums?
So Duke Pandemonium is a side project, with all the good, the bad, and the bizarre that the name implies. Sure, it’s easy to be cynical, and your more “serious” music fan probably will be, but such a fan is missing Marmaduke Duke’s point entirely. If you can accept that fun music is just as worthy as anything else, then be prepared to enjoy one of the most spirited, funny, and danceable records of the year. But for God’s sake, don’t take it too seriously.