The legendary electronic duo modernize the roots of house and techno music on their first studio album in five years.
No matter what genre an artist represents, tradition is almost always respected. That’s the hope behind the Chemical Brothers’ return album Born in the Echoes, anyway, a full-hearted, smartly-styled shot at classic Detroit techno and Chicago house sounds paired with the duo’s own signature brand of retro trip-hop -- styles that have been suspiciously all but absent from the current electronic zeitgeist. In one way or another, the ephemeral conventions of modern EDM have pressed their influence on up-and-coming stars and pioneers alike, and responses have run the gamut from graceful to disastrous. Daft Punk, for instance, responded to the pressure by abandoning the electronic sound altogether and bringing true disco back to the foreground with Random Access Memories; the Chemical Brothers, as lauded and respected as the robots in many electronic circles, are less reactionary in their throwback attempt, sensibly aiming more for a return to form than a return to square one, but Born in the Echoes is nonetheless born of the same desire to return to some old, forgotten values in the hope that they find a purer, timeless sound.
What sets Born in the Echoes apart is its commitment to filtering these reverberations from the past through modern ideas. The record is not a generic reenactment of early electronic music. The album’s opening track “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” implements classic house and trip-hop elements with a searingly simple synth line and standard four-on-the-floor kick beat, but the song, in response to a compulsively fleeting EDM landscape where songs are mostly just filler around a massive drop, is almost refreshingly withholding. Even after the ratcheting tension of its drum breaks, the track returns to the steady pulse of the main beat, never pulling the rug out the way electronic fans have come to expect. “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” is classic dancefloor music, but the greatest virtue that the Chemical Brothers have imbued it with is a bold resistance to the modern trappings of the genre.
This is consistent throughout the record. “Go”, the following song, provides just as many classic dance vibes with its huge synth melodies, rapturous chorus and Q-Tip’s timelessly loose rap flow. Its bursting, infectious refrain fits well in the modern context of big arena EDM, but the deceptively simple rhythmic charge of the gyroscopic verses is pure restraint on display -- a virtue far more characteristic of retro styles than today’s pop-derived form. “Under Neon Lights” is the closest Born in the Echoes comes to Random Access Memories’ ethos, taking cues from retro techno and house with vintage drum machine sounds and a sailing, drawn out vocal performance from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark that could have been stripped from a forgotten disco gem. It’s the Chemical Brothers’ most reverent cut on the album, sounding truly like an early rave single more than a modern take on one. It sets up the rest of the record’s more generic adherence to the classic techno and house modes in songs like “Just Bang” and “Reflexion”, tracks that, while groovy and undeniably fun, ultimately feel as stripped away and shallow as the modern pop-electronic sounds the Chemical Brothers’ actively avoid.
Luckily, this doesn’t prevent Born in the Echoes from feeling like a well-rounded record. There are artful surprises -- the propulsive, rock-flavored “I’ll See You There”, the downtempo, Beck-featuring “Wide Open”, the trippy and sinister “Taste of Honey” -- that lend the album’s latter half a spontaneous energy that underscores the duo’s versatile skill. Of course, most will come away from the album with those colorful retro sounds fresh in mind more than anything else. The Chemical Brothers have succeeded in tapping into the values of early electronic music and bringing them to life in contemporary culture, something that their peers have struggled with endlessly, and they deserve the most credit for that.