[23 March 2010]
We all know the much-derided Musak peddled by many a Buddha Lounge/Café Del Mar compilations helped the cause of dragging “chill out” through the mud. Luckily, the downtempo franchise has managed to benefit from Simon Green (aka Bonobo). While more uptempo artists like Fink and the Herbaliser were recently finding new relevance with concert-hungry audiences by striking a happy medium between laptop production and live instrumentation, Green was doing this back in 2001. His debut and only release on Tru Thoughts Animal Magic was a highly textured trip hop affair, by turns soporific and piquant, majestic and claustrophobic. Even though it recalled DJ Shadow in the minds of many critics, Animal Magic went one further with real trumpets and pianos, which gave it an immediate quality lacking in most purely sampled material.
By the time Days to Come came out in 2006 on Ninja Tune, Green had acquired an appetite for live vocals and his fondness for world music, developed during the days of Dial M For Monkey (2003), was well and truly consolidated. Strains of Erykah Badu could be detected throughout his sound palette, while Green’s explorations into the “exotic” took on the form of Madlib if he were to add to his long list of collaborators Quantic. Yet, despite the cacophony of influences and intimations, Days to Come was a triumph in cohesion. In short, Green was able to do to chill out music what J Dilla did to instrumental hip-hop. Both acts managed to keep their respective genres relevant even as they took to unconventional production methods that were more demanding of the listener, but also more rewarding than any standard chart-topping fare.
Having painted the scene so golden for the reader, you might expect Green’s hotly anticipated fourth album Black Sands to be superlative to all he’s done. Alas, it’s not. A solid effort bearing all of Bonobo’s trademark subtlety in complexity notwithstanding, Black Sands is Green playing it safe. Its 12 tracks are an acute digest of his three earlier albums, but with half the experimental nous displayed on Days to Come. Yet, the album does present an unprecedented level of richness in texture that discerning listeners can parse over multiple listens. As with all Bonobo albums—with pop undertones in tow—this “work” on the part of the listener is never taxing. This is especially so with Black Sands where the brooding languidness of albums past has largely given way to the grudgingly sprightly, their introspective melancholy reconfigured into something epic, even melodramatic.
“1009”, for instance, boasts a disco beat which keeps the listener sufficiently cheerful as they negotiate the sweeping, echoing violins, diaphanous sampled vocals and electronic gurgles and bleeps that all seem to chime so well together. The effortlessly cool “Kong” puckers up its hip-hop accompaniment with strings, chimes, space effects, chirping flutes and a host of other sounds—again without sounding messy or forced. The very excellent “Animals”, which layers thick, drawn out slabs of brass and woodwind over odd time signatures, is as excitingly avant-garde as anything produced by Steve Reich.
For some Bonobo fans, this new emphasis on hyper-texture is enough to satisfy. But for those looking for radical departures, they won’t find it here. In fact, they will find that a sizeable chunk of the album is stamped with the thumbprint of Quantic before and after he decamped to the Colombian jungle.
Bonobo’s likeness to Quantic was evident already on “Pick Up” on Dial M for Monkey and “The Fever” on Days to Come. In fact, it was a likeness that led Quantic, through Quantic Soul Orchestra, to cover Bonobo’s “Terrapin” and “Babarabatiri”. But on Black Sands it’s more than a little obvious. The listless Chinese violin refrain on the album intro and the enjoining “Kiara” are reminiscent of Quantic’s own Oriental adventures on An Announcement to Answer if they had a hypnagogic spell cast on them in the form of chopped up vocals, bleeps and distortions.
“El Toro”, meanwhile, could have been some unannounced B Side on Quantic Soul Orchestra’s Tropidelico (2007) and one would have been none the wiser. Bar its sweeping violins, the song seems to share the Latin DNA of that album’s title track with all the requisite percussive busyness. “We Could Forever” also sits easily in Quantic territory with its asymmetric bassline, flute melody and polyrhythms. If anything makes this song strictly “Bonobo”, it’s the surfeit of producer sounds (clang of metal, the faint shivers of something sounding like an accordion, whistles and wheezes galore) Green throws in—none of which are out of place, of course.
In this way, one can quip that despite Green’s decision to jump ship from Tru Thoughts onto Ninja Tune shortly after the release of Animal Magic, he’s sounding more like his former label’s flagship act. But this likeness to Quantic is not necessarily a demerit on Green’s part. If it is imitation in some form, he couldn’t have chosen a more distinguished musician to ape. Also, Green has done a finer job of making his music Avatar-like palpable than Quantic has done in the past.
Where Days to Come unleashed the vocal side of Green’s musicianship, Black Sands has put the lid back on. There are only three songs on the album that feature vocals—the suitably breathy ones of Andreya Triana. Even as they barely make a dent in the album as a whole, songs like “The Keeper” and “Stay The Same” are the closest Green has come to crafting a traditional song.
Black Sands is by and large Bonobo back to form making an instrumental album in which he pulled out all the stops—not least on the album closer and title track. Presenting a perfect denouement to an album that has many moments of grandeur, “Black Sands” is a Godfather-esque waltz, bordering seven minutes, that gradually builds with wave upon wave of horns. Its great achievement is that it holds our attention without veering off profligately on tangents, which is the temptation of many marathon tracks. Instead, it reminds us of Green’s forte since Animal Magic: even when he’s ambitious, he’s as subtle as you can be about it.
Even though Black Sands is no radical departure in the Bonobo narrative, it tells us once again how Green made Chill Out palatable to discerning listeners. It’s also another feather in his cap for making electronic production into a sophisticated art form. For this, and much more, Black Sands is worth all the minerals buried in black sand.