Night Safari is the first album in six years from Populous (real name: Andrea Mangia), but what it is? You could file it under electronica, sure. But how about the fact that my iTunes folder has this tagged as “world” music? And could it be folk, since it draws upon filed recordings. Could it be hip-hop in a sense, considering that there are samples from obscure records? And, maybe, considering that it boasts guest vocalists or collaborations in the form of Clap! Clap!, Cuushe, Digi G’Alessio, Iokoi, DJ Khalab, and Giorgio Tuma, you might file it under pop, since it seems to have a bent towards mainstream concessions at times by bringing in guests.
So Night Safari is and isn’t all of these things, a hard-to-categorize album. So what is it really? What is Populous trying to get at here? The press release calls this “an imaginary nighttime safari”, but, aside from “Brighton Pier”, with its samples of bird noise and the crunching of leaves, could you consider this the aural equivalent of a sonic travelogue. But, if it is, where is the adventure taking place? All over the four corners of the world? Or someplace deep inside your brain? It’s hard to tell, and that either makes this album beguiling or just plain frustrating – a trip with no clear direction in mind. Still, Night Safari does have its individual moments, prompting one to wonder if this is more a collection than an album that loops and threads things together.
The most accessible track is the album’s second, “Fall”. Featuring a bubbly synth line and female vocals from Cuushe, the song is pure Eurodisco, though with a minimal feel. However, out of all of the 11 cuts on Night Safari, this is the most pulsating, and the most confectionery. It feels a bit tribal in the beats, at least, so if you excised the cute vocals this could be more part of a head trip than something destined to be danced to in the club. However, things get a bit muddled from there. “Dead Sea” starts out with a looped and distorted vocal line that I simply can’t make out. Is it going “Fall with me” or “Fuck with me” or something completely else? I’m not sure. And that makes Night Safari a tough nut to parse at times. “Vu” does have something going for it, though, complete with tribal chants that appear to have been sampled – there’s the pop and crackle of old vinyl underneath the track in places as a current. And “Quad Boogie” has a music box line that’s charming at the start, even if the beat is initially rather unimaginative. A funky keyboard line comes up and provides something to move your feet to. However, the track intersperses this with foreign language vocals, interrupting the flow of the song, stopping you dead in your tracks just when you’re getting your groove on.
“Honey” has a low end bassy keyboard throb, but really doesn’t do anything but transmute into an ‘80s teen movie soundtrack instrumental. When Iokoi kicks in with her vocals, everything drops and becomes completely minimal – just vocals, occasional throb, and a truly boring click track-like beat. Snooze. “Water Temple” has an intriguing moment where a series of drums gently fade in about halfway through the track, and because there’s the presence of tape hiss, you have to wonder if it’s a field recording. However, just as you’re making up your mind, the drums drop out and then we’re back in some techno wonderland, which isn’t nearly as fascinating as what just preceded it. And the title track is the most egregious thing to be found on the album. It just bleeps and bloops and glitches with keyboard washes as background to it. At about this time, listener fatigue may be setting in. There’s nothing that’s uplifting – except perhaps spiritually – about this album. There’s a dearth of tracks that causes the listener to want to move their body, and not that that should be the end result of any electronic album, but because Night Safari teases at it, the end result is something that feels rather lazy, or as though its maker just couldn’t make up his mind.
Night Safari’s needle hits close to E somewhere around the eighth or ninth song (out of 11); in fact, the first time I heard this album, my reaction was – even at 46 minutes long – “Okay, when is this thing going to end?” I think that speaks to the overall cadence of the record: It’s far too lacklustre and aimless to really land much of an impact. There are plenty of sonic diversions, sure, but when most of the material winds up sounding like carbon copies of each other to some limited degree, it’s hard to really engage with the record. Perhaps the record works best if you have it on while you’re asleep and are dreaming. When you’re paying attention, though, things have a habit of not cohering. Part of the problem is that Night Safari is a record of memorable moments interspersed with randomness. Or, worse, little of actual substance. While the forays into world beat are interesting, they don’t happen enough, leading one to wonder what the point of this sculpture in sound is supposed to be.
Night Safari, then, is an album that has an identity crisis, unsure of its footing or what it wants to be. One wonders if the long time off between albums affected Populous in any way, because this disc sure sounds like its creator isn’t really sure which way to follow the map he’s holding. More tellingly, Night Safari is simply alright, and does have moments that pique the listener’s interest, but large swaths of it just seem to be sonic New Age-y music that does nothing. It’s pleasurable if you have it on as background music and aren’t paying attention to it, but, as something more, it lags. I’ll tell you the truth: ultimately, this safari is a bit of a come down. And, overall, it’s downright boring at times. That’s not the feeling you want to conjure up when you’re taking someone somewhere, but when the destination is unknown, this, alas, was bound to happen.