Malachai is one of those strange hybrid bands that only the British seem to produce. It’s a fairly mysterious group: only two guys, who yet manage to make a big sound. And that’s precisely the conundrum. How does one vocalist and one sampler/mixer make a sound as full as a traditional band? Though Malachai got an early push from Portishead’s Geoff Barrow—and the duo is also from Bristol, noted trip hop ground zero—they are more frantic and louder than their neighbors.
What makes Malachai seem particularly British is the duo’s music collector’s eye. Malachai fits nicely in the British tradition of blue-eyed soul, which mixed strong singing and good melody with fuzzy guitars and heavy drums. This genre was based on a deep passion for other people’s music (specifically Black American), much like Malachai mashes up different sounds to make it new. It’s interesting to see a strong singer in a traditional rock mode paired with this pastiche system rather than a full band. Malachai performs the kind of serious rock that used to dominate the airwaves but these guys do it playfully: “performing” it. (And their playfulness is evident in their mysteriousness, like the monkey masks they’re known to wear).
On the second album, the songs are actually a bit pared down, but that doesn’t mean they’re any smaller. Instead, many tracks are reduced to the bare essentials: busy percussion and soulful melodies. Malachai got rid of much of the guitar and synth—which mostly come in on choruses or as intro riffs—that gave the debut album its heavy ‘70s sound (like Black Sabbath mixed with Jamiroquai). Still, this album is heavy. After the atmospheric introductory song, “Monsters”, the dynamic “Anne” bursts in with a struggling drum beat. Even if these drums are sampled, they sound as good as live. The group says that this new approach takes them back to their hip hop roots.
The drum-based songwriting carries them through most of the rockers on the album like “(My) Ambulance” and “Let ‘Em Fall”. This may be ironic, considering how one typically associates rock with guitars, but Malachai proves that it’s all in the drums, that strong back beat. I couldn’t help thinking that these songs would make Axl Rose jealous, even without any big dick guitar solos or theatrics. By discarding the approach of most indie bands, who feel no need for a strong singer, Malachai is able to replicate the sound of a supergroup with just two people. But here we see the opposition of the democratic approach to music making that the Internet has ushered in: the availability of every kind of sound as a building block for a song over real individual chops. The singing chops are showcased on the mellower songs too, like the nice singsong duet with Katy Wainwright, “Rainbows”, and the downer “No More Rain Maureen”, which sounds like a mix of Ziggy Stardust and Berlin Bowie eras.
In the end, Malachai writes songs—that is, despite the lack of a typical band, they still observe a traditional setting with traditional content, i.e. love. The melodies are strong and compelling and the mixture of genres works really well. The only danger is cheesiness , but reflexive genres always run this risk. Take funk, which turned very quickly into disco by gaining success. Funk was a way of playing; disco is a commercial revamp as a product. This same thing plagued many British scenes: think of the Stone Roses dance-y jangle pop and what that spawned (like the Charlatans). For the most part, Malachai stays away from the cheese and still deliver the funk.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.