The Chemical Brothers: It Began in Afrika

Jeremy Hart

The Chemical Brothers

It Began in Afrika

Label: Astralwerks
US Release Date: 2001-09-11

Boy, do I feel like an idiot. After enjoying the hell out of 1999's rock-electronica opus Surrender, I jumped when a new Chemical Brothers disc floated through the PopMatters office. The only thing is, well, uh, it's only a single. Yup, "It Began in Afrika" is just the first track off of the Chemicals' next full-length, Come with Us, due out this coming January on Astralwerks. Whoops....

So, here I am, trying to say something insightful about a whopping three songs, two of which are actually different versions of the same song. Now, truthfully, this isn't all that abnormal, as a lot of dance/electronic artists release only a song or two at a time to DJs and the dancefloor-crazed masses -- it's just a little bit new to me, "rock guy" that I am. That said, I don't think that leaves me entirely unqualified to comment on this stuff, mostly because, unlike a lot of their electronic brethren, the Chemical Brothers know how to rock.

Where the work of a lot of similar artists comes off as A). mindless body-moving beats or B). computer-generated "compositions", devoid of any real feeling or human presence, the Chemicals actually use the genre to create real live songs, with choruses, verses (even if they're non-vocal ones), and climaxes just like your average pop-rock track on the radio. Part of why I myself liked their last effort, Surrender, was precisely because of that subconscious songwriting ability -- the songs there may not always sound like a "real" song, but take a look at their structure and you'll see. Trust me: Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons know their way around a pop song.

On to the music itself: first off, "Afrika" doesn't vary a whole lot from the sound achieved on Surrender, even using what sound like samples from tracks off that CD (some little snippets I can peg as being from "Out of Control", and other bits sound oddly familiar, as well). There's a much heavier "tribal" feel here, however, with the music focused on what sounds like actual hand percussion, samples of a guy repeating the title over and over again, and the sound of a jaguar(?) snarling. Don't expect any world-music experimentation, though -- the tribal-sounding stuff's just the flavor, so to speak, to give a dash of dark, dangerous texture atop a pretty basic, beat-heavy, straight-ahead track.

The first version of "Afrika" on the CD is just the radio edit, so it's not until the second track, the full 8:39 version of the song, that things really get interesting. The two versions are essentially the same, obviously, but at an abbreviated five minutes, the radio edit really feels too brief. The thing to remember is that this stuff's often written for the dancefloor first, and then cut and pushed into shape for radio second; the longer version gives Rowlands and Simons time to stretch out on the track, allowing them to take their time and let the music unfold as it should. My lone complaint would be that my head starts to hurt after about the twentieth time the guy says "It began in Afrik-ka-ka-ka".

"Hot Acid Rhythm 1", ostensibly the "b"-side of the single, is just as intriguing and captivating as the rest, albeit in a different vein. Straying from the Chemicals' fairly standard four-on-the-floor beat briefly, "Rhythm" is actually sort of an electrified samba (at least at the start), syncopated and almost a little sinister. It sounds like it could serve as the soundtrack for a racy James Bond sequence in Ibiza or something....

What more is there to say? There's apparently a new single, "Star Guitar", due out in January, before the new album's released, so I guess I'll have to wait and see if the rest of Come with Us sounds like this stuff; even if it doesn't, mind you, it's a fair bet that it's equally good.

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