The popularity of rock and its generations-old traditions never seems to wane in the United Kingdom. Just beyond the garage rock and post-punk inflected mainstream of bands like Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian sits the UK’s vast, critically-approved art rock scene, from the experimental dance-rock excursions of Foals and Everything Everything to the more tempered and theatrical approach of bands like Alt-J and Metronomy. Among this disparate crowd is Django Django, masters of synth-pop, electro, and indie rock methodology, sporting their own distinct brand of vocal harmonies, analog synthesizer sounds, and exotic drum patterns that make them stick out among a burgeoning collective.
Django Django, despite being relative newcomers, proved to be a distinct personality in this new wave of European art rock with their funky and infectious self-titled first album. Still, musical tradition has a way of creeping up on enigmatic and irreverent artists, especially in the UK where rock music’s many legacies run rich and deep. With their second album, Born Under Saturn, Django Django show that they aren’t immune to the tantalizing effects of nostalgia, even at the expense of their vitality and, crucially, their individualism.
Like all releases in the UK’s modern art rock milieu, Born Under Saturn is a mixed bag stylistically, drawing as much from the oversaturated sonic experiments of the Beatles and the Beach Boys as the sanitized purity of modern, digitally-enhanced pop music. They brandish their synth-pop leanings most visibly on tracks like singles “First Light” and “Reflections”, but then they also implement more classic rock textures on songs like “Shake and Tremble”: surf guitar, thumping bass grooves, and honky-tonk piano. Under a densely esoteric exterior, Born Under Saturn hides the elements of well-worn rock traditions, the kind that Americans shallowly admire and that the English devoutly and unquestioningly canonize. Nothing sounds quite like Django Django, but many things come close.
Still, what Django Django do invest themselves in, they invest hard. Born Under Saturn’s sturdiest throughline are its layered vocal harmonies, used not only in refrains and particularly melodic parts but throughout every section in the album. These vocals give the band their own unique stamp when most of the singular mannerisms adopted on their first album are more flat, refocused for a more consistent sound. As a result, none of the songs on Born Under Saturn ever take flight emotionally, and the measured, homogeneous approach drains much of the human element from the music. By committing to such a narrowly designed vocal style, Django Django cripple their own dynamism, forcing their songs into dulling, mid-tempo permanence. It only exemplifies the band’s greatest mistake in making their sophomore album seem, depending on individual listeners’ proclivities, either like the result of a rich mosaic of influences or that of prosaic compromise — between cerebral art rock and rigid, uncomplicated pop, between avant-garde futurism and tedious retro-rock conservativism, or between rich melody and textured rhythm.
Certainly, sometimes the band’s fanciful ingenuity comes off just right, but too often it comes off as awkward posturing, as with the ethnic percussion solo that closes out “Vibrations” and the similarly extended outro of “Breaking the Glass”. Like too many art rock bands, Django Django overextend themselves, drawing out songs and passages far beyond necessity. Born Under Saturn fails to deliver on the promise of a creative, unusual new artist and instead delivers mostly the overzealous meandering of a band more interested in being accepted — by critics, their contemporaries, skeptical rock fans — than being original. It’s an album that has the potential to consistently annoy or captivate its listeners, but probably not both.
The ultimate failing for a band trying to break through an art rock landscape is to sacrifice their identity for the sake of familiarity. Django Django may not have entirely forsaken their potential; indeed, many critics will no doubt fall dramatically for this album. But stylistically, Born Under Saturn is an unfortunate step backward for a promising, unique artist.