The first album John Arnold ever owned was Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”. The song that inspired his exploration of electronic music was Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”. His press includes a line that mentions M.I.A. as a point of comparison. And somehow, he stirs all of those influences and similarities together into a potent brew of electronic retro-modern dance hall soul.
Got all that?
Style and Pattern is Arnold’s second full-length for Ubiquity records, and it’s a beast of broken beats and unconventional techno rhythms, hip-hop and soul, quiet acoustic guitars and staccato horn accents. Arnold employs a plethora of guest vocalists, ranging from London hip-hopper Ty to the West African stylings of Pathe Jassi. Put everything together, and it’s a party on a five-inch slab of digital media, fast-paced enough to get people dancing and musically interesting enough to keep them there, all while hardly ever having to resort to the cliché oom-pah of the typical disco / techno beat.
In a development that could be seen as atypical for the average electronic music whiz, Arnold seems most at home when he’s providing a backdrop to a vocalist. It’s in these tracks that his most interesting rhythmic tricks come out to play, times when he’ll make you shake to a 3-3-2 beat, as he does on album opener “Style and Pattern (Nuff Version)”, or he’ll bust out some serious syncopation, as demonstrated by the Latin-tinged “Show Your Love”. The vocalists, for their part, are up to the challenge, with Detroit’s Paul Randolph leading the way with two excellent tracks, “Rise Up” and “1234”. “Rise Up” layers vocal line upon vocal line to create a densely harmonized verse until the gospel-tinged, horn-inflected chorus that manages to soar easily above everything else on the entire album. Pathe Jassi’s work on “Jangal” is strong as well, urgent and rhythmic, even as he speaks in languages that 99.9% of Arnold’s target audience won’t understand. Jassi transcends language with his dramatic performance, aided by Arnold’s heavy use of synth strings and tension-building sequencer lines.
Even as he does a fantastic job with his guests, however, Arnold knows how to turn in the occasional fantastic instrumental jam as well. “Geminade” is a fantastic track that throws the listener for a left turn or three: it starts out sounding like a percussion jam propelled by jazz piano lines, but ends up turning into a Daft Punk song. That’s a good thing, in case you weren’t sure. “Separately Together” is just as solid, combining a broken beat with some great horn-generated chords over a bassline that jumps octaves like so many puddles. As the elements combine, Arnold keeps the construction of the songs simple, never letting too many sounds get in the way of the songs. Arnold’s work never sounds cluttered, as his melodic elements are just prevalent enough to complement the beats, which are, in the end, the most important things.
There are a couple of weak spots to be found. “Cabin Fever” is a little bit too simplistic, even with its gated, faded sound effects and squelchy synth noises, and the 16 minutes worth of remix work at the end is a bit repetitive and superfluous. Still, as long as you take the two remixes of “Inside” (the original version of which appears on Arnold’s first full length, Neighborhood Science) as bonus tracks, it’s easy to turn off Style and Pattern after “1234” and still be plenty satisfied with the album.
What John Arnold has done is produced an album that allows himself a sense of identity among his influences, something that melds the retro with the futuristic while still remaining perfect for the dance floor right now. Plus, how’s this for commitment to excellence — he found himself so excited by a new track he had written, “La Cocina”, that he convinced his label to add it for the final release, a track too new to be included on pre-release promos like the one I’m reviewing. Given the quality of the rest of his album, however, I’d say that Arnold likely has reason to be excited, assuming that “La Cocina” is on par with the rest of the tracks on Style and Pattern — Arnold is on a roll, and he knows it. Soon, he won’t be the only one.