Sometimes it’s tempting to just write a standard review for half the electronica releases I receive and fill in the blanks. It would go like this:
[Blanks]‘s latest release [blank] is an otherwise solid album marred the spectacularly mediocre lyrics and vocals of [blank]. The track [blank] works pretty well because the vocals are so heavily treated that the cliche-ridden lyrics are indecipherable, but otherwise [blank] is a major drag on what should have been a great record.
Such is the case with Hybrid’s sophomore album, Morning Sci-Fi, which at once expands on the success of their debut Wide Angle with a wider palette of sounds and tempos, and diminishes it with the ill-advised inclusion of singer-guitarist-lyricist Adam Taylor. Taylor’s not bad, exactly; he’s just not all that great, either. The tracks that feature his workmanlike delivery of his own oblique melodies and lyrics (“The right is always the wrong / And the short’s always the long”) reveal highbrow dance music’s roots in prog-rock a little clearly for comfort; the nine-minute “True to Form” sounds suspiciously like a latter-day Genesis epic, while the dramatic acoustic guitar strumming and live strings (played by the Hermitage Orchestra of St. Petersburg, no less) of “Steal You Away” echo the Moody Blues at their most baroque.
Fortunately, Taylor’s only featured on four of the album’s 11 tracks (not including a brief synth and spoken-word intro that’s essentially just a setup for “True to Form”), so the main Hybrid guys, now paired down to duo Mike Truman and Chris Healings, have plenty of time to delve into their strengths as producers of dark, instrumental breakbeats and ambient electronica. And in this realm, they have few rivals: Even underneath Taylor’s vocals and those of the bafflingly overrated Kirsty Hawkshaw, who appears on the album closer “Blackout”, Morning Sci-Fi bristles from start to finish with dark beauty and menace, like the soundtrack to some especially spooky sci-fi action thriller. Hybrid are often compared, rightly, to other producers of atmospheric dance music, like Underworld and Deepsky, but with this album they’ve established a gloriously grim sound all their own.
The album is mixed almost like a DJ set, with tracks fading into one another and building into a fairly coherent listening experience. From the opening doom ‘n’ gloom theatrics of “True to Form”, highlighted by an unmistakable bass riff from New Order’s Peter Hook, the album segues into moody midtempo breaks with “Know Your Enemy” and almost pure ambient with the deliciously sinister “Marrakech”. “I’m Still Awake” trots out Taylor again for what is essentially a post-grunge rock ballad tricked out with some atmospheric electronics.
After “I’m Still Awake” grinds to an abrupt end, Hybrid shift gears, dropping the album’s first full-blown dance track with the effective but very old school “Visible Noise”, which comes on glowsticks blazing, complete with a great acid line and 90-second breakdown that allows the track from mutate from progressive house into breaks. “We Are in Control” and “Higher Than a Skyscraper” are less obvious club anthems but still very dance oriented, with restless breakbeats underpinning cleverly jumbled soundscapes of electric guitars and basses (some again played by Peter Hook), strings, piano and, of course, those churning, menacing synths. Especially good here are the swooping, Beatlesque strings on “Higher Than a Skyscraper”—rock has long incorporated orchestral elements for dramatic effect, but in electronic music, it’s rarely been done this successfully.
“Steal You Away” builds on the sweeping strings of “Skyscraper” and adds Taylor’s guitar and voice to the mix, in what is probably his most effective appearance—the track is too melodramatic by half, but Taylor’s earnest singing style, which sounds a little like Michael Hutchence minus the swagger, is well-suited for this sort of epic prog-rock balladry, and the ghostly effects and filters slapped over him during the song’s intro work to his advantage as well (see “The track [blank] works pretty well because the vocals are so heavily treated” in my generic capsule review, above).
Some spooky synth effects then pave the way for the album’s best club track, a foreboding progressive anthem called “Gravastar” that lifts a few tricks from the Timo Maas playbook with its thick, squelching beats, but then goes off brilliantly its own trancey direction. The 12-inch version of this, which on the album is a too-brief 5:01, should raise the roof on many a dance floor this winter.
Morning Sci-Fi ends, unfortunately, on a one-two punch of overwrought vocals accompanied by some of Truman and Healings’ most overwrought production. First there’s the breaks epic “Out of the Dark,” a prickly patchwork of jittery beats, oscillating bass synths and Taylor’s most mannered melody yet, which sounds like it was sliced out of another song entirely. Then comes “Blackout” and the sylvan Hawkshaw, best known for her work on BT’s “Dreaming”, trying to make her wisp of a voice sound impassioned as she sings to some lover who done her wrong that he can’t hurt her anymore because she’s “cut the voltage to your power lines”, whatever that means. Yes, she has a shockingly high upper register, but she slides in and out of key on her way to it and she over-enunciates like mad the rest of the time. That she’s worked with virtually every electronic dance producer of note seems nothing short of miraculous.
I sometimes feel like an overly critical curmudgeon when I see how often my reviews of electronic-based music reserve the harshest criticism for the vocalists. And to be fair, the deck is stacked against anyone who pits the human foibles of their own voice against the smooth, sleek, computer-generated surfaces of electronica; it’s not like rock or hip-hop, where attitude alone counts for a lot. You either have to truly kick ass, like Bjork or Alison Goldfrapp, or you have to pitch your vocals like one more layer in the dense maelstrom of programmed sounds, like Underworld’s Karl Hyde. Taylor does neither, which isn’t entirely his fault; even on a noisy, uptempo number track like “Out of the Dark”, Truman and Healings drop out the beat and most of the surrounding atmospherics every time Taylor sings, leaving his frail, all-too-human voice sounding naked and lame when compared to all those machine-precise beats and synth hooks. Maybe that was the intent, but the breakdown-and-bring-in-the-vocal pattern in dance music is such a cliché by now that it no longer has any impact. We hear the beat drop out and expect to hear a vocal.
I think part of the problem is that singing is a lot like writing—everyone wants to do it, and everyone thinks they can, or at least thinks that they’re a good enough judge of quality singing to find someone else to do it for them. When in fact it’s probably the hardest thing of all to do really well.