The first new album in 12 years from the long-running Ninja Tune act features a surprise appearance by The The's Matt Johnson.
Sometimes what the future needs is a good ol' dose of the past. Begun in 1990 by Matt Black and Jonathan Moore from Coldcut and at one point a quartet, DJ Food is now manned by one Strictly Kev, who is also the house artist for the act's label, Ninja Tune. The Search Engine is the first new DJ Food album since Kaleidoscope appeared in 2000. Only it's not really new at all.
Aside from a couple interludes, The Search Engine is culled from the trio of EPs DJ Food released between 2009 and 2011. Though the interludes have been added to help smooth things out, the album still comes across as a hodgepodge, albeit a pretty good one. The Search Engine is essentially a compilation, and it sounds like one. As such, it covers a pretty broad range at the cost of cohesion. With a host of guests and an unexpectedly rock'n'roll punch, it is not unlike something from another well-known collective with "trip-hop" roots, Unkle.
If you have enjoyed previous DJ Food or Ninja Tune releases, The Search Engine has plenty of elements that will sound comfortingly familiar, if not exactly fresh at this stage. Sampled old-time radio-style voices talking about UFOs and outer space, for example. Sampled Timothy Leary-style voices saying things like "Have you ever touched a sound?" High-pitched, sci-fi synthesizers and doomy, ominous chords combined with thumping breakbeats. You'll find them all here, and you may be surprisingly refreshed by the way they mix the whimsy and portent, the sheer fun that is a big part of Ninja Tune. This is surely health food for a DJ culture that has for too long been on a diet of cookie-cutter trance and squeaky-clean minimalism.
But Ninja Tune's is not the only past conjured up by The Search Engine. On this particular journey, Strictly Kev and company also visit some now-iconic sounds from the 1980s and '90s. "The Illectrik Hoax", featuring Natural Self, has a distinctly grunge sound, complete with thrashing guitars, pounding drums, and guttural vocals. The breakbeats and sound effects ensure you don't forget who you are listening to, but this rock/funk/electronic hybrid has been handled more convincingly by, say, the Heavy. Industrial music veteran Jim "Foetus" Thirwell lends his gravelly, distorted vocals to "Prey", which also features a punishing rhythm and thick fuzz-bass. And the robotic voices, thrashing guitars, and heavy percussion of "Sentinel (Shadow Guard)" and "Percussion Map" recall Ministry's peak-period work.
The Search Engine's most notable future/retro move is a cover of The The's classic synth-doom epic "Giant". In its EP incarnation this was an instrumental, but here The The's Matt Johnson lends vocals. It's great to hear the song get a fresh outing, and Johnson has hardly been heard from in the last 15 years. His deep, world-weary croak is as full as ever of portent and menace. Surprisingly, though, Strictly Kev's music merely replicates the original, making this "Giant" more of a remix than a re-interpretation. Good as it is, it fails to improve, or shed new light, on the original.
The most compact and endearing reminder of DJ Food's essence comes in the form of, of all things, a medley. With help from British DJ 2econd Class Citizen, the 11-minute track goes through nine movements. Along the way, it touches on funky soul, spooky soundtrack music, industrial music, and more, with those trademark breakbeats and spoken-word samples providing the glue. The Latin-flavored "A Trick of the Ear" is a nice reminder of the more jazzy side of DJ Food.
True, The Search Engine offers little in the way of texture and nuance that you have not heard before. But after a 12-year absence, it's nice to be able to throw it on, kick back, and embark on a uniquely DJ Food adventure.