There is something of a glut of downtempo, chill-out, ambient and generally “lie back and mellow out” records doing the rounds at the moment. Most of these have sprung up from the need for post-club, wind-down sessions. Drawing on electronica, jazz, blissed out deep house and a renewed interest in Pink Floyd and psychedelia, they have found a ready market. The problem with most of the music is that it is simply a little dull and lacking in energy. This is somewhat endemic, as the rules of the game proscribe anything that may cause the listener to rise from the horizontal. Nonetheless, labels like Om and Guidance have shown that music of great charm and beauty can emerge from the decision to slow down those beats and let the vibe flow. A third American label deserves mention. Shadow, with its roots in breakbeats and trip-hop, is also making headway in this area, although its points of reference often derive from the more futuristic end of the rock scene than from the recovery rooms of dance.
Hybrid Device definitely lean more to prog-rock than to the deep and digital. In fact, if there is a guiding voice behind this album it is probably Roger Waters. This does mean that at times it is rather like sitting in with a couple of stoned students and listening to them endlessly tune up their guitars. My preferences are for the tracks that move closest to the Abstract Lounge sound that has found a niche in the more chin-stroking club circles of Germany, Japan and the UK. On account of this, I would suggest that Rock types will like the album more and more as it progresses, whereas the more soul and jazz oriented will start to lose patience from track five. From that point we do encounter some neat drum’n'bass and tabla rhythms but the latter part of the disc is really a collection of non-linear guitar instrumentals for a post-modern era. These are all cool, contemplative and refreshingly uncluttered but too lacking in anything remotely funky to convince entirely. The exception is the delicate, almost breezy “Old Habits” which is actually the most melodic of all the compositions and has a lovely synth-clarinet type solo.
The first four numbers are less problematic and would sit happily on any Om/Guidance compilation. They flow effortlessly through an image rich soundscape and, while they are hardly robust, they have a sinuous, more bass-heavy quality that puts one in mind of European “broken beat” outfits. If you like I.G. Culture, Les Gammas or Minus 8, you will find these sound-patterns familiar. The pieces are well-balanced and tend to the “organic” in tone (to be fair the whole set, though undoubtedly destined to be filed under Electronica, has a natural, almost acoustic flavour). “Mystery Music” is the track most likely to find itself included in Future Jazz sets, whereas the suitably crepuscular “Twilight” has Ibiza Chill written all over it. The lazy, snail-like pace will put some people off but a certain Satiesque hypnotic quality more than makes up for that.
“Moody”, which sounds like it was recorded underwater, has a funeral grandeur to it—organ and synth strings make it the most cinematic of the cuts while stark drum machine kicks keep it mobile. Best of all is “Gone” with its jazzy percussion and a bubbling bass line. Sampled voices repeating the word “Gone” give this one a desolate air—as if there is murder and dark deeds afoot. This is a record out of Los Angeles and the noir side of that city is most evident here. It is safe to say that all of this album takes place outside daylight hours.
Then it is on to the guitar meanderings and a waning of affect. Hybrid Device (Will Wood and Puneet Grewal) have already done enough to make them worth taking note of, however. The duo apparently spent two years producing this release. Cynics might wonder how long they would take to come up with a record with tunes and a few lyrics. On the whole though, this is a likeable, well-produced and undoubtedly atmospheric debut. Some more attention to rhythmic variation might have helped but you will hear a lot less substantial offerings in this field over the coming months. If you want an introspective, cut-and-paste musical experience which stops short of complete somnolence—if you can take the aura of gloom which clings to parts of this strange project—then I suggest you give this (and other Shadow alumni) a go. Just don’t expect to find yourself dancing.
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. Thanks everyone.