It’s been 13 years since the British DJ/producer Tim Simenon released an album under his Bomb the Bass moniker. A lot has changed since Clear came out in 1995. Then, trip-hop, the moody concoction of R&B, pop, reggae, and hip-hop, was at its apex. Clear fit right into that template, with a series of downbeat pop songs fronted by an eclectic cast of vocalists, including the requisite reggae legend (Bim Sherman), soul man (Bernard Fowler), and siren (Sinead O’Connor). It showcased Simenon’s knack for uncluttered, cleanly-produced electronica. After Clear, Simenon focused on production, most notably for Gavin Friday and Depeche Mode, and running his own label, Electric Tones.
Simenon’s is an established and respected-enough name that his reactivation of Bomb the Bass warranted some excitement, and curiosity. Would his new work continue in the vein of Clear, attempting to put an updated spin on trip-hop, now that names like Portishead and Tricky are back in the news? Or, would he make a bold departure? What would Bomb the Bass in 2008 sound like?
Well, the short answer is Depeche Mode, without the atmosphere, guitars, pop smarts, or charismatic frontman. Like a lot of others lately, Simenon has turned to the electropop sounds he grew up with. Simenon made his name with bold, creative sampling, but Future Chaos is all about synthesizers. Primarily, by Simenon’s admission, the definitive analog synth, the Minimoog. It pulses, squirts, bleeps, and hisses all over the place, without relent. Simenon and primary collaborator Paul Conboy create a dense, oppssreive atmosphere… but then fail to do anything interesting with it. The vocalists, chiefly Thom Yorke soundalike Conboy, do a lot of moaning. It’s like all the ingredients for portent are laid out on the table, but they haven’t been turned into anything tasty. In other words, all those vintage synths only sound dated, and Future Chaos is a big disappointment.
“Out of this smog I stumble”, Conboy moans on opener “Smog”. At least the murky, bubbling music suits the theme. Since Simenon is more of a mood-setter, the challenge for his vocalists is to come up with an engaging melody or hook, or at least provide some distinction. Conboy doesn’t accomplish any of these, not even on the relatively straightforward synth-doom-pop of “So Special”. Not even full-on collaborations with like-minded British bands can get a whole lot going. The hookup with techno/pop act TOOB results in what sounds like a remix of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”, a hyper synth arpeggio over which vocalist Jackone semi-raps lines like “My future don’t smell like magazines”. No, I’ve no idea what he’s talking about, either. At least the track with the promising, Krautrock-influenced Fujiya & Miyagi, “Butterfingers”, is amusing, with its whispered non-sequiturs like “I play Tetris in my eyelids”. And, by the way, that’s not Bernard Sumner singing. If only the music were as creative as the lyrics, or the adorable video.
Leave it to ex-Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age and current Gutter Twins man Mark Lanegan to inject some humanity and warmth. The Lanegan-fronted “Black River” is Future Chaos‘s one unqualified success. As a synth approximates a slide guitar, Lanegan makes like a grizzled blues troubadour. Then, he gifts the album with its sole memorable chorus, a major-key moment that lets some much-needed light into the proceedings. Coming seven tracks in, though, it’s not quite bold enough to save the day. Anyway, whatever momentum it provides is soon sapped up by more Conboy moaning and the noisy, Jon Spencer-led mess, “Fuzz Box”.
Simenon has said that in sticking with one instrument, the Minimoog, and making Conboy a full partner, he wanted to simplify Bomb the Bass and its sound, as well as avoid repeating himself. His aims are commendable. After all, he could’ve cashed in with Clear part two. In this case, though, simpler also means less interesting, and the sad truth is that a repeat would’ve been more welcome.