The fifth album from the unique UK electronica duo gives a nod to their acclaimed moody and minimal early work. Go ahead and call it a comeback -- of sorts.
When a band's press material enthusiastically claims that said band are "their old selves again", it's usually a red flag. You can assume that the band has been around awhile, had early critical success, and then strayed from the blueprint -- alienating more than a few fans and critics along the way. The claim is really just another version of the cliché "return to form", which is code for "we know we're not that cool anymore, and our last album was disappointing; but now we're trying to do more of what made you like us in the first place, so give us another chance -- please." Now, some of the original techno/electronica acts of the '90s are getting old enough to make these claims.
Take Swayzak, for example. London's James Taylor and David Brown have been trading under that name for a decade now. As with many, many other acts, electronica and non-, their first couple albums are their best-known and most-loved. In particular, 1998's Snowboarding in Argentina put their heady, dubby, minimal techno-house in the minds of critics and listeners. Over the course of three subsequent albums, Swayzak expanded its sound to include more ethnic influences, and contracted it to wrap around more pop tendencies; namely, vocals. Their previous studio release, 2004's Loops from the Bergerie, was regarded by some as their least substantial album to date. Hence, last year's remix/rarities wrap-up Route de la Slack made sense, as does the "weee're back!" marketing angle.
And there's something to that angle. While very much its own animal, Some Other Country does look back to the clean, thoughtful sounds that made Snowboarding such a success. The best thing about Swayzak has always been their ability to make minimal, machine-generated arrangements sound heavy, not in the sense of loudness but in the sense of deep thought and concentration. Some Other Country has plenty of moments like that, where you sense Taylor and Davis labored at the console until they got the detail just right.
Take "Distress and Calling", one of the album's best tracks -- the way the synth line rises, crests, and falls to invoke a sunset perfectly; or the hi-hat rattles that punctuate the track. You've heard flourishes like these in countless other techno compositions, but few sound as effective as they do here. Or, there's the way the submerged sequencer pattern that underpins "Silent Luv" is a subtle yet unmistakable update of Pink Floyd's "On the Run", and the way the laughable "angst" of the guest vocalist from Italian band Les Fauves singing "Silent love is bet-ter than a spoken one" mocks the self-conscious austerity of the Floyd. You can't help but be impressed at the way "Quiet Life" builds methodically from a sole voice to a thundering symphony of timpani, synths, and static.
On the best of Some Other Country, all that labor sounds effortless. "No Sad Goodbyes", featuring regular collaborator Richard Davis on vocals, is the clear standout. The rippling, gently pulsing synths provide a suitably dreary soundtrack for Davis' trip "…back to the dark streets / Paved with good intentions". With its white-noise crashes, chime-like synths and resigned tone, it's like an update of Depeche Mode's early-'80s gem "Leave In Silence", and a strong contender for slowburner/comedown track of the year. Like most of the album, it moves along at Swayzak's signature 4/4, 120-ish BPM clip, just steady and forceful enough to dance to if you wanted.
On other occasions, though, the beat alone isn't enough to keep you engaged. "Pukka Bumbles" and "By the Rub of Love" do away with vocals and up the intensity to near-industrial levels, but they feel like Taylor and Brown trying too hard -- sometimes a well-established sound without the creative spark feels like going through the motions. The flute-heavy "Claktronic" just sounds like a mistake, an awkward railroading of African music and electro-house. It's as if Swayzak are simply trying to say, "well, look, we could have made another album like this".
Taylor and Brown needn't have been so emphatic in their attempt to re-establish their sound and win back fans (as if there were any question about it, the final track is called "They Return"). Some Other Country is a fine album without all the comeback talk. But if it makes everyone feel better, go ahead and say it: Swayzak are back.