[21 September 2005]
I wish I had the heart to hold the egregious album-title pun against Alex Gold. Backfromabreak refers to the 18-month sabbatical from dance music he took while recuperating from a life-threatening paragliding injury which left his back shattered. So, literally and figuratively, the album announces Gold’s return from a very long and painful break.
Perhaps globe-trotting DJs like Gold should take time off more often, because I’ll be damned if Backfromabreak doesn’t sound exceedingly fresh. A presence in electronic music for over 10 years (as proprietor of the Xstravaganza label in addition to collaborations with Prince, Chuck D and, uh, Bryan Adams), this album is a significant step away from Gold’s previous progressive/trance sound. The record swerves in and out of electronic music history, reflecting a wide variety of the most popular sounds of the last decade while retaining a distinctly appealing and atmospheric production style.
The album begins with the title track, a swooshing breaks juggernaut that begins with hip-hop bass stabs and ominous orchestral strains, before introducing a rolling rhythm that brings to mind the best of late ‘90s big-beat. “String Theory” plays like slightly more club-focused mid-era Massive Attack (or perhaps even Ray of Light era Madonna), with an ethereal voice laid over gradually building synthesizer swells and skittering, insectoid breakbeats. It succeeds in building a great deal of tension despite the fairly laid-back tempo—there’s a lot of energy seething underneath the surface.
“Energy Bomb” sounds like the kind of track that could have been huge a decade ago—big, echoey bass stabs and clean percussive breaks over sparse acid lines. It sounds a little bit like Fluke’s “Atom Bomb”—coincidence? Probably not with that title. “Stranded in Paradise” is the album’s first real stab at a contemporary club sound, featuring the kind of high-energy vocal hard trance that never goes out of style. It’s not a particularly distinctive example of the genre, however, even if it is probably destined to be a peak-hour crowd-pleaser at Ibiza.
“Foreign Shore” recovers nicely, however, with a mix of synthesizers and mid-tempo jungle breaks that brings to mind early Future Sound of London. The vocals are slightly overdone, however, veering frighteningly close to lushly multitracked cheese (the lack of credits on my promotional CD prevents me from divulging the name of most of the singers who appear on the album). “Flying” recalls early Primal Scream and especially the Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored” (especially with the repeated refrain of “I wanna fly”, it’s hard to avoid the association). Hardly bad touchstones, even if the trakc hardly approaches the stature of its influences.
“Who Decides” returns to the club with a hard, tech-influenced house beat that is slightly reminiscent of Underworld, albeit with a far more conventional pop vocal line (the faint, ethereal hi-hat line is especially evocative of Second Toughest In the Infants). “Electric Places” is another club track, with a boisterous hard-house beat offset against a looming, staccato bassline. The Underworld comparison again comes into play here, as massive synthesizer washes succeed in conjuring a surprisingly sinister non-trance vibe. “Better Days” continues the high energy levels but the regrettable snare rolls and heavily-processed vocals veer away from the accomplished feel of that previous two tracks.
The album’s climax comes on “LA Today”, featuring vocals by synthpop mainstay Phil Oakey (vocalist for the Human League). It’s an interesting piece, contrasting Oakey’s distinctive voice with a peak-hour pop-trance sound. I enjoyed this track despite reservations. I usually dislike these kind of obvious anthems, but Oakey’s compelling and welcome presence managed to overcome my dislike of the genre. The album finishes with “You’re the One”, a progressive breaks ballad similar in execution to something you might expect from Hybrid.
Despite the fact that Backfromabreak is occasionally derivative and sometimes edges to close to big-room cheese-trance for my comfort, I still found myself impressed with the record. There’s a lot to like here, and despite the stylistic mélange, Gold’s well-heeled, cosmopolitan production manages to pull it together well. Gold doesn’t have a particularly distinctive voice as a songwriter, but he does have enough ingenuity and enthusiasm to cover a multitude of sins.