[29 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The main goal of Back to Light is evident right from its very title. After a 13-year hiatus, Bomb the Bass’s 2008 album, Future Chaos, generated quite a bit of excitement. It was a major disappointment, though. Mainman Tim Simenon’s sharply produced, club-savvy sound was replaced by uninspiring analog squawk and general mope. Oops, better get “back to light”, then, and fast!
Sure enough, Back to Light has been promised as a more upbeat, uptempo affair, the inevitable “return to form” that follows an ill-received work. Sad to say, it really gets back to the moodiness and bland analog pulse of Future Chaos, with slightly faster tempos. Simenon seems so caught up in his desire to be cutting-edge while retaining an allegiance to the electro-pop he clearly loves that he’s become lost. Collaborating on Back to Light with Brazilian electronic music producer/artist Gui Boratto hasn’t given him a significant new direction, either. Boratto is known for his minimal, often dark techno, and he doesn’t exactly lighten the mood here.
Nearly all of the ten tracks begin and end with the same sort of cascading analog arpeggio. It’s as if Simenon and Boratto recorded the entire album without changing the settings on their equipment. Furthermore, the songs themselves have little in the way of dynamics, whittling away their time without much to keep you interested save a couple basic chord changes. For an act called Bomb the Bass, there isn’t much in the way of low end, either. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the beats were more compelling, or if Bomb the Bass weren’t theoretically trying to make pop music by employing vocalists.
It tells you something that none of the four singers can make much of a dent in the songs’ rigid, homogenous structure. That’s not to say Back to Light is a complete failure. Regular collaborator Paul Conboy handles four tracks, and both his high pitch and tendency to moan and mumble remind you of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. This approach works well on the opener, “Boy Girl”, probably the set’s most confident song. American Kelley Polar lends his heavily processed voice to a pair of tracks. With ominously brooding chords on “Start”, the resulting sound is not too far removed from the progressive-electro-pop of mid-1980s Wire. You could be floating around in black space like a marooned astronaut in a Stanley Kubrick movie. Not exactly “light”, but effective at least. Ditto thoughtful crooner Richard Davis on “Price On Your Head”. His sympathetic delivery produces something like an emotional effect, which the rest of Back to Light is woefully short of. Depeche Mode collectors should know that Martin Gore does not sing on “Milakia”, but rather plays synths. Still, for those who are nostalgic for vintage DM instrumentals, the track is worth a download.
When Simenon and Boratto aren’t at the top of their game, though, the vocalists’ moodiness is almost comedic. “We are the infinites / Bathed in shimmering fire”, Conboy declares on single “The Infinites”, and you have to assume he’s doing so with a straight face. When the music comes through, as on the truly upbeat, almost swinging “Up the Mountain”, the singer sabotages it. In this case, fresh-voiced the Battle of and Sea (hey, that’s the name on the credits) does lighten the mood and change up the feel. But her chorus, “Up the mountain / Left right, left right”, is positively grating.
No, Back to Light never quite gets it together, but it’s not for lack of trying. That’s actually the worrisome part for Simenon fans, though. After two straight lackluster outings, it’s fair to ask if the veteran producer has lost his touch, has fallen behind the times, or just has a severe case of navel-gazing. Hopefully, the next Bomb the Bass album will provide a more encouraging answer to that question, because the evidence here seems to suggest it’s a little of each.