The dance boffins have done the fashionable thing and plugged into the dance-pop revival, proving in the process that they can write catchy pop songs.
How long ago it now seems since Groove Armada first struck gold with their curiously brassy and bass-driven musak, smartly backed by the occasional tech-house hit for anyone who would rather shake their ass than drift into horizontal bliss.
Since chill duly evaporated around the Millennium, we have seen Groove Armada fading in and out of dancefloor relevance, first with their gentle forays into blues, grime, and raga, secured always by a handsome helping of house. Then came the dog’s dinner that was 2002’s Lovebox, which was simply tepid and MOR. Still, even when they reached their nadir, it was hard to ignore the fact that Groove Armada’s Andy Cato and Tom Findley remained undeniable production maestros, with an enviable power to net A-list collaborators (for good and ill). And snobbish they never were: when fresh ideas ran aground, the pair openly absorbed the currents of the time to regain vitality. 2007’s Soundboy Rock, for instance, was Groove Armada’s digest of the sound du jour, namely dirty French electro and Prince-inspired '80s funk. Alas, the album’s generally upbeat fabric was set to unravel no thanks to Groove Armada’s bolshie attempts at straddling dance and chill-out like the good old days. It was not only misguided of them to inject Zero 7-type moments into strobe-lit soundscapes, but it smacked of desperation in their effort to sound unique. If Cato, a trained jazz trombonist, had only stuck with his brass, Groove Armada would have had an easy unique selling point. As for the album’s uptempo tracks, like the chart-topping “Song 4 Mutya”, Groove Armada came off as faceless producers hired to make guest singers like the ex-Sugarbabe Mutya Buena sound good rather than the other way round.
Yet for all their dithering over product, Groove Armada have remained stoutly business and media savvy. Not only have they spent the previous years curating London dance festival Lovebox, but they supposedly launched their own alternative music-sharing platform. Moreover, they premiered their latest album, Black Light, on PlayStation 3's virtual world Home.
So here we are now with an album that marks the pair’s most decisive and daring shift in direction, a development spurred on by their recent signing to San Franciscan dance label Om. What more daring thing is there to do than to strut out a long-held but largely closeted fetish for glam-rocking dance-pop? Groove Armada have even employed their '80s idol Bryan Ferry along with the young synth-pop enthusiast Nick Littlemore (of Aussie outfit Empire of the Sun) to help them fashion a glossy sound that could slide anywhere between the Blitz and the Hacienda. But before you can say “outlandishly retro”, Black Light is filled with instants in which the album's sheen is pockmarked with the kind of reconstituted dance-punk that would elicit nods from LCD Soundsystem.
Groove Armada may be late bloomers in the current scheme of dance-pop, Black Light will probably be one of the year’s best dance albums if only because dance-pop refuses to die. Pegging a brand like “Groove Armada” to the revival would only enhance its vitality. Also, given that the group has on many occasions mentioned their dislike of being defined by their past work, Black Light provides a sure sign that the duo are living in the moment just like their party-going audience.
Even if it is dubiously fashionable, it’s impossible to deny that Black Light is Groove Armada’s tightest, most unified and filler-free album since Vertigo. It also makes palpable the pop songsmith in these sample-hard dance boffins. On the single “Paper Romance”, the listener is reminded of MGMT with its pounding static bass, disco beat, and twinkling keys; and yet it boasts a singalong chorus worthy of the B-52’s. On “Time & Space”, another hit in the wings, the New Order-esque sparseness of its verses powerfully builds and releases into the kind of synth pyrotechnics typical of Giorgio Moroder. What’s more, one is unlikely to come up with a better pairing of vocalists here than the Enya-sounding Jess Larrabee, who takes the verses, and Londoner SaintSaviour, who bellows with the capacious diaphragm of Aretha Franklin on the ebullient chorus.
Such brazen catchiness is nicely, even logically, counterbalanced by the more industrial and eerie ends of synth-pop. On “Warsaw”, Littlemore’s gruff shout-to-the-heavens glam romp is cloaked in a gauzy Numan-like menace that hangs over the rest of Black Light like a phantom. “Cards to Your Heart”, meanwhile, is an anthem on the scale of U2 with all its lead singer’s bleeding urgency oozing out of Littlemore. The Aussie musician, in fact, is the album’s greatest asset -- even more so than Ferry, who appears on just one song, the Bowie-meets-Roxy Music “Shameless”. Instead of Littlemore’s standard nasal register, he lends a dramatic range that’s as grandiose as his costumes.
SaintSaviour, also a remarkably versatile vocalist, is another delightful choice. Her performance on “I Won’t Kneel” starkly contrasts with that on “Time & Space” as she alternates between ethereal and shrill, not unlike Cocteau Twins frontwoman Elizabeth Frazer.
If progress is that you can’t tell that the makers of “Superstylin’” are identical to the writers of “Time & Space”, then Groove Armada can’t be doing too badly. However, there are still doubts that the duo, being so in vogue these days, have yet to settle on a sound that anchors them in listeners’ minds the way the balmy trip of “At the River” and the jazzy dub of “Dusk You & Me” did. It will take the next Groove Armada album to reveal whether they are capable of doing so again.