Is there any greater event in the whole of electronic dance music than the release of a new Chemical Brothers single? OK, you may disagree, but for the last decade the Chemical Brothers have been pretty much at the top of their class in terms of sonic ingenuity and songwriting prowess. They have consistently created music that sounds 20 years ahead of its time, and by that conservative reckoning we still haven't caught up to '93's "Song to the Siren". It's as exciting and strange a song as the first day it was recorded.
So with that in mind, we consider their new single, the first number off their new album, Push the Button, which is being released at the end of January. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed by "Galvanize". It's a hip-hop track fronted by Q-Tip, and despite his enthusiastic performance, the song itself seems rather dreadfully torpid. I can forgive the Chemical Brothers a multitude of sins, but torpidity is simply unacceptable.
Tom Rolands and Ed Simons began their career deeply indebted to the hip-hop that they absorbed as students, predominantly the dense production of Public Enemy and De La Soul that would provide -- along with acid house, early industrial and melodic British pop -- the blueprint for their unique sound. They've always been tentative about incorporating overt hip-hop into their music, however. Their first track with a rap, 1997's "Not Another Drugstore" (with Justin Warfield on vox) was inexplicably left off the track listing for their epochal Dig Your Own Hole, showing up as a b-side for "Elektrobank". Now they've taken the plunge, working with K-Os on "Get Yourself High" (a new track produced for their 2003 hits disc) and this, featuring the erstwhile member of A Tribe Called Quest.
If it seems odd for them to be making such an enthusiastic entrance to the world of hip-hop after being wallflowers for so long, a part of their hesitancy probably has something to do with the fact that they never seemed to warm to the gangsta genre which was so popular during the '90s. They love Timbaland enough to dedicate a pair of songs to him (the b-side "Morning Lemon" and its companion off 1999's Surrender, "Orange Wedge"), but their interest in modern hip-hop was always slightly desiccated (as evidenced by an oddly defensive letter they wrote to Spin magazine in 1998 protesting their review of the Brothers's Gonna Work It Out).
"Galvanize" comes off as an odd amalgam of the Dig Your Own Hole-era b-side "Buzz Tracks" (a track famous for its punishing bass tones) and Surrender's electro-tinged "Music:Response" (which, oddly enough, featured a vocal sample from Missy Elliot). It's got a hard beat and some nice bass but it never seems to gain momentum: it gives off the odd impression of having cement shoes. You keep waiting for it to reach the break and burst into a sprint -- but it never does. There are some odd Eastern string samples that are vaguely reminiscent of some of Kanye West's production, but only vaguely.
The Chems have a long history of producing B-sides every bit as good as their A-sides, and with this single the Chems have finally surpassed themselves. "Electronic Battle Weapon 7" appears in addition to "Galvanize". The "Battle Weapon" series has long been the Chems' format for tracks-in-progress and one-off experimentations: some of their best songs made their first appearances in slightly different forms on limited "Battle Weapon" pressings. This particular Weapon is every bit the monster that "Galvanize" isn't. It starts off strong and keeps on going hard, with pulverizing beats and wickedly dangerous acid riffs throughout. It's even got a sample from Nightmare on Elm Street, of all things. It's a mighty track, and fully succeeds in salvaging their rep.
There's a part of me that suspects that they might have more invested in tracks like "Electronic Battle Weapon 7". Their live shows have been growing more and more baroque the last few years, with dazzlingly complex arrangements fueled by radical spontaneous rearrangements of their catalog. A mid-tempo number like "Galvanize" will probably only appear in the live set in strangely mutated form, but something like the seventh Battle Weapon sounds as if it could have been recorded as an outtake from one of their feverishly intense performances.
This wouldn't be the first time the Chems had released a slightly disjointed crossover single. Historically, these tracks are the exceptions among large batches of new material, and not the rule. Hopefully, Push the Button will have more of the enthusiasm and imagination of the seventh Battle Weapon, and less of "Galvanize"'s slightly paunchy mope.
The Chemical Brothers have always been ahead of their time. "Galvanize" fails partly because it sounds so familiar. The Chems greatest moments have always come from synthesizing familiar elements into startlingly fresh and new ideas. This sounds maddeningly as if they're trying to play catch-up with 15 years of hip-hop history, and the notion of the Chems chasing after anyone, after successfully playing their own game for so long, is rather depressing.
(Note: there was a printing error on my copy of the CD, as it did not feature the second b-side "Rize Up", but an extended version of "Galvanize", possibly the album mix. So I haven't heard "Rize Up" yet.)