Shedding the excesses that hindered them in the past (see: guest vocalists, overt pop concessions), the Big Beat men take it back to the basics and produce... yet another Chemical Brothers album.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be like this at all.
Back in 1997, the Chemical Brothers were the kings of the still-thriving big-beat "electronica" movement that tried ever so hard to dominate the American music landscape in the mid-to-late '90s. Dig Your Own Hole, the duo's crowning achievement, showed a surprising amount of eclecticism despite being rooted in a simple 4/4 club template, the album spawning dance hits (the Grammy-winning "Block Rockin' Beats"), instant modern rock classics (the thrilling Noel Gallagher collaboration "Setting Sun"), and epic psychedelic rushes (the aptly-titled "The Private Psychedelic Reel") without as much as breaking a sweat. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons packed arenas, enjoyed critical kudos abound, and no doubt drank wines most of us could only dream of ever tasting (they were that good!).
Unfortunately, following a touted "landmark" album has always been a bit of a difficult feat, and the Chemical Brothers, despite their best intentions, were never able to truly capitalize on the creative spark that they were able to capture so well on Dig. Their 1999 disc Surrender did show the duo playing around with some new textures, but that alone does not a good album make, and Surrender wound up living up to its title a bit too literally, retreading a lot of the same space that was explored on Dig right down to having yet another Noel Gallagher cameo. Each subsequent studio album the group put out was merely an aural photocopy of the elements that made them so great to begin with, each new disc positively brimming with guest stars while being completely bankrupt on new ideas. It was almost as if the group had steadfastly refused to evolve, subscribing to the "if ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy and continuing to work like nothing had ever happened to dance music after 1998.
With 2010's Further, however, the group seemed to have finally got the message: after a decade of strolling through needlessly excessive pop collaborations ("The Salmon Dance" remains a mis-fired attempt at a dance craze for good reason), it was time to get back to the basics. Although the group still managed to flirt with great moments of sheer pop perfection now and then (Push the Button's "Marvo Ging", the Flaming Lips collaboration "The Golden Path", the surprisingly funky single "Midnight Madness" from 2008's Brotherhood compilation), these were isolated incidents. By stripping away the guest vocalists, pop concessions, and excessive impulses, Rowlands and Simons have attempted to make Further a singular, streamlined piece of work, an artistic "statement" instead of a mere "album". So confident they were in their vision, they even released a version of Further with an album-length DVD of visuals to coincide with every second of their latest effort.
Bold? Absolutely. Worth it? Not really.
Further, despite its lack of outside collaborators (save a few small spots with Massive Attack orbiter Stephanie Dosen), still sounds like a run-of-the-mill Chemical Brothers album, plain and simple. The melodic structures are pulled straight out of the Bros.' Surrender-era playbook, the drums -- with that light bit of reverb to make things sound just a bit more grandiose than they actually are -- sound like the same Chemical beats we've heard dozens of times before, and the tense buildups that have so frequently served as a trademark for the duo simply lack punch this time around, simply because Further doesn't really build up to anything; instead, it just plays around with some keyboard squiggles and a few interesting ideas before calling it a night and walking home for the evening.
Take opening track "Snow", for example. After a nice little static loop, Dosen's voice comes in to coo sweet little statements about love "lifting me higher" over a simple bass pattern, synths soon building around her very gradually before ... fading out all over again. "Snow" isn't really a song as much as it is an intro to the 11-minute album centerpiece "Escape Velocity", but, at five minutes, "Snow" sure does take its sweet time to accomplish what it sets out to do. It's the first sign that Rowlands and Simons haven't really worked in a cohesive long-form format in some time, and the ebb and flow of Further isn't as much uneven as it is downright jarring. "Escape Velocity" itself -- with its fluttering "Baba O'Riley" key blips and thumping drums -- is serviceable Chemical Brothers, but far from the sky-scraping heights of, say, "Elektrobank".
As Further jogs on, it's obvious that this whole project isn't as much "back to the basics" as it is a retread of the tropes that worked so well for the band previously, with the track "Horse Power" sounding nearly identical to the opening of 1999 single "Out of Control", rarely deviating from its very simple melodic pattern and lacking the airy bridge (and following crash) that made "Control" one of the group's most exciting radio releases. Yet as easy as it is to spot which parts of Further are self-plagiarized from the duo's earlier releases, even newcomers to the Chemical party will have a hard time getting behind moments as generic as "k+d+b", which goes through all the motions of a good dance song (steady drums, rising chorus, simple deviation on the bridge) but forgets that about how most great dance tracks have hooks that are at least somewhat memorable, instead of "merely passable", bordering on forgettable.
Part of the frustration that comes out of listening to Further stems from this recurring problem: it's a stretch to call any of these tracks "bad" -- they're not. Instead of being terrible, however, they're unimaginative, dull, and lacking any sort of cohesive identity. With such drab surroundings, it should be no surprise that Further's truly great moments pop out all the more. Second single "Swoon" rides a distorted guitar lick that could very well have turned into one of the Chem's trippy journeys into the musical kaleidoscope, but, instead, it uses a canned drum beat and old-school dance basslines to create a vibe that's closer to early house anthems than modern-day stadium-thumpers, showing Rowlands and Simons' affinity for the greats that came before them, resulting in a track that's as quietly seductive as it is weirdly sexy.
Even with that surprising blast of nostalgia, however, it's "Another World" that positively takes the cake this time, starting with an unadorned keyboard lick that transmogrifies into a Fantasia-like synth crash before warping once again into a rubbery stutter that sounds quite unlike anything the Chems have done before. The track is amazingly simple yet unbelievably effective, the near-whispered vocals of Rowlands himself only contributing to the song's irresistible late-night vibe, here capturing every element just right, proving, once again, how sometimes the long waits between Chemical Brothers albums are worth it if not just for a few highlights.
Yet "just a few highlights" was obviously not what the Chemical Brothers were going for with Further, which was obviously designed to be the "creative reboot" that they've long been searching for. Unfortunately, with its endlessly recycled ideas, total lack of thematic unity, and surprisingly distracted sense of melody, Further only lives up to its title in the sense that the duo -- despite their best efforts -- continue to slowly moving away from what made them so great to begin with.