The surprising success of Portishead continues to haunt us. Ever since Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley graced us with the unexpected, massive (particularly in Europe) hit album that was Dummy, legions of imitators have come along to imitate, pay homage to, and theoretically improve on the formula of downtempo beats, cinematic musical backdrops, and life-crushing vocals that the trio all but perfected back in 1994.
Supreme Beings of Leisure happen to be one of the more notable co-opters of the so-called Bristol sound, offering a vaguely jazzy, lounge-style bent to the laid-back beats and pained vocals so popular a decade ago. With that little tweak and a little bit of what corporate masterminds might call an “edge”, Geri Soriano-Lightwood and Ramin Sakurai seem to be creating their music with the goal of improving the sound in mind; it’s like the whole trip-hop scene rolled into one, except bigger and faster. Unfortunately, they still haven’t quite found a way to work “better” into that equation.
One must surmise, for example, that Gibbons’s relatively weak voice is part of what made the original iteration of this sound so brilliant. Her weak voice sounds frail, beaten down, and utterly appropriate. As such, it’s understandable that so many more technically talented vocalists, Ms. Soriano-Lightwood included, can’t even come close to that level of emotional resonance. “Darling, our love was not meant for this world”, sings Soriano-Lightwood in “This World”, and while its intent might be a sorrow-filled lament, you never quite feel for her. She sounds too strong, too ready to go find a little bit of earth love. Her voice is wonderful, pitch-perfect and pure, but it’s the type of smoky, confident voice that would sound more comfortable in a slinky dress atop a closed baby grand.
As for the music, poor Ramin sounds trapped by his genre of choice. Mostly he’s laying low and taking it slow, as on tracks like opener “The Light” and “Pieces”, which sounds like every noir soundtrack ever squished together via sledgehammer. Still, you can hear him desperately clawing at the self-imposed borders that he has built for himself on “Mirror”, which starts out like any other torch song, with the most Faithless-style synths you’ve ever heard, but eventually explodes into a big, beautiful chorus of live-sounding drums and squelchy, fuzzy bass noises. “Mirror” is the third track on the album, and it’s the first sign of life in 11i‘s derivative landscape of sadness and desolation. “Good” actually borrows from the tropes of techno for the sake of an excellent little club track, and “Ride” could be the next great car commercial waiting to happen (especially with lyrics like “Beauty’s there, it’s deep inside / Drifting on a brilliant tide / It’s all in the ride”).
Sakurai does take things a little bit too far, however, with “Oneness”, which starts out unassuming enough, but eventually goes into power ballad mode with lots of unnecessary guitar solo wankery in the last minute or so. I understand that they’re going for a mood here, but this just sounds too much like Yanni Goes Electric to be taken seriously. Also of note on the negative side is closer “Lay Me Down”, which contains an utterly unmoving atmospheric coda that lasts far too long and makes quite the assumption of its listeners by finishing with the electronic percussive noises that opened the album.
The implication, of course, is that the listener is supposed to have 11i set to “repeat” and listen to it for hours on end. The reality is that the listener will have a hard enough time finding the patience for a single run-through. When this kind of music is at its best, it can draw us into its world, daring us to look away from a dramatic life of passion and heartbreak. On 11i, Supreme Beings of Leisure stay at too much of a distance to do anything of the sort. There’s nothing obviously wrong with it, really, but maybe there should be.