The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 2)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matt:

Alright. It’s past midnight on a Saturday; I slept in this morning; I’ve been idly passing the time all day. Basically, feeling great. Time to pour myself a wee dram of the Glenmorangie and check out these Science Siblings you keep going on about. Okay. (Ah, that’s nice scotch.) Going to start this right now.

***

Holy crap.

Well, I’m staggered. That had everything. Seriously, what doesn’t this album have? I’m glad you had me watch the video, because it only added to the sensory overload. There’s a famous editorial cartoon about Mahler (my favourite composer, you’ll recall) that I suspect is relevant here:

mahler-cartoon-1907

(The caption reads, approximately: ‘My god! I forgot to include the kitchen sink! I’d better write another symphony.’)

There is nothing I appreciate more than complete sensory overload. That is a characteristic that’s common across my whole taste profile, from music to movies to radio programs. To demonstrate how deep it goes, and by extension how well Further worked on me, I need to engage in a little musical autobiography. Bear with me.

The first music that I remember liking, way back when I was too young to make musical choices for myself and I just heard whatever my parents had on, was always either dominated by orchestras or synthesizers. It was slim pickings for orchestral music: usually either Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks or Yanni Live at the Acropolis — music that I categorically rejected as soon as I discovered Mussorgsky and Shostakovich. (I remain ashamed enough of these early taste indiscretions that I can’t even bear to link to Lloyd Webber or Yanni. This speaks more negatively about me than about either of them, I suspect.)

But the synthesizer selections were immediately more promising: I remember an immediate affinity for Vangelis — particularly his collaborations with Jon Anderson — and for Rick Wakeman. This led swiftly to an obsession with Yes, and subsequently to my entire adolescent identity.

But the thing that those early fascinations pointed towards — even the inauspicious pop orchestral stuff — was an obsession with what I’ll call timbral variety. The orchestral music had scores of different instruments with their own unique sounds working in tandem. The synthesizer music seemed to work towards the same goal with different tools. There was a ‘muchness’ to it, even when it was subtle and quiet.

And most of the music that I’ve intuitively loved over the years shares that same muchness. Prog was always partially defined by its expansion of the typical rock ensemble to include racks of keyboards, wind sections, auxiliary percussion and tape. Psychedelia is almost wholly defined by its sonic variety. The jazz I like tends not to be quartets and quintets, but rather stuff like Mingus, or electric Miles. And my preference in classical music has always been for huge orchestras used judiciously in the vein of Mahler, or indeed John Luther Adams.

Radiohead. Amon Tobin. Kanye. CHVRCHES.

It’s only comparatively recently that I’ve begun to appreciate music that operates with a smaller sonic palate: old-school rock, string quartets, combo jazz. And yes, punk.

I hadn’t heard the Chemical Brothers before, and I’m not at all well-versed in techno. All the same, listening to Further really felt like home. I may not have a tumultuous summer of 2010 to look back on, but I do have an entire life story scored by sonically massive, grandiose music like this. It felt like a walk through all of the elements I have ever appreciated in music in the past. I’m reminded of my brief dalliance with Tangerine Dream, much to my friends’ confusion. I’m reminded of the period when old Yes records were the centre of my universe. I’m reminded of the hours spent listening to Vangelis as a child and thinking ‘how does one guy make all those sounds?’

And the trip down memory lane culminates in an insight — a minor one, but an insight nonetheless: music has been the central throughline of my life because of its capacity to overwhelm.

The Chemical Brothers overwhelmed me. Basically, feeling great.

— Matthew

The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 1)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matthew:

It’s time for some more bleeps and bloops.

Earlier this summer, one of my favourite bands, the Chemical Brothers, put out a new record. It’s OK, I guess. It’s not bad. It’s got some great moments. But it didn’t floor me like the last time they put out a new album. That album came out in 2010, and it was called Further.

The Manchurian duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons first turned heads in the early 90s as the Dust Brothers. But, since there was already an American production duo called the Dust Brothers, they swapped the Dust for Chemicals, and went on to basically invent a style of electronic music production that dominated the genre for the rest of the decade. They combined the more acidic, psychedelic aspects of electronic music with the sampling aesthetic of hip hop — hypnotic, spacey synths married with soul and funk samples and big, bombastic drums in a way that really hadn’t been done before. The style came to be called ‘big beat’, and it was everywhere. Think Fatboy Slim, think the Prodigy… basically, think the soundtrack to every video game and sci-fi movie from your childhood. You have the Chemical Brothers to thank (blame?).

They were also at the fore of the trend of electronic groups working with big-name guest vocalists from often completely disparate genres — perhaps most notably on the 1996 single that put them on the map, the absolutely bonkers ‘Setting Sun‘, which featured Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame*. This, combined with their genre-bending and often quite heavy sound, gave them (and others like them) a crossover appeal that electronic music didn’t really have before — it was now ‘OK’ for rock fans to listen to techno. (Or at least, techno that sounded like ‘Setting Sun’. Oof. That song still kicks my ass.) It also gave them a huge sonic palette to work with — they could be raw and abrasive, they could be lush and euphoric, and they could be anything in between.

All of these things combine to make their sophomore album, 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, their ‘classic’ album, and indeed a landmark album of the genre and even the decade. But you’re not listening to to that album, or the one after that, or even the one after that. No, the album you’re listening to, Further, is their seventh studio LP.

Why? Because while Dig Your Own Hole is interesting because of what it meant for the genre as a whole, Further is interesting because of what it meant for the band. See, after the success of Dig Your Own Hole, the Brothers went on to make — and I say this as an absolutely massive fan of the band — four more albums cut from pretty much the same cloth. Big hooky first track. Guest vocals from someone famous. Brief return to breakbeat roots. Ravey dancefloor tune. Guest vocals from someone not famous at all. Psychedelicdrawn-out album closer (usually). Again, I love them, but I’ll be the first to admit that they were getting predictable. (Mostly.)

Right away, it’s clear that Further is a conscious effort to break away from the formula. Unlike literally every other Chem Bros album, it features no guest vocals at all (barring a few scattered lines from Massive Attack’s Stephanie Dosen). It’s only got eight tracks; none of them clock less than five mintues, and one of them (the second one, even!) is a whopping twelve. This is decidedly not an album of radio pop hits.

But what’s really cool about this album? The CD version comes with a DVD that features visuals for each song, created by Flatnose George, the production duo of Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall who have been doing the Brothers’ live visuals since the very beginning. They’re not music videos in the conventional sense; they’re abstract, experimental video art, forming a very loose visual narrative to accompany the album. Make no mistake, they are definitely intended to be displayed on twenty-foot-high screens at music festivals where everyone is on psychoactive drugs — but it turns out that Smith and Lyall’s style works when you scale it down to the album level, too. Part of this is that their style is so different from what you usually associate with techno music visuals — it’s not computer-generated fractals and laser beams, it’s mostly footage of real-world objects (including people) lit, shot and edited in extremely interesting and creative ways.**

TL;DR: as with ISAM Live, you won’t be listening to this album so much as watching it.

Until this album, the Brothers were kind of like a techno Quentin Tarantino. Their early work was revolutionary, and you still looked forward to their new releases, because you knew they would be good. But at the same time, you know it’s never going to blow anyone out of the water the way the older stuff did at the time — by its very nature, that kind of lightning can really only strike once. I don’t know that Tarantino has necessarily had a Further, but the Chemical Brothers have, and I love it. Five years later, it might still be my favourite album of theirs. How often do you get to say that about a band’s seventh album?

I don’t know. Maybe this album won’t floor you quite the way it floored me at the time. It’s certainly not embedded in your psyche as the soundtrack of your tumultuous summer of 2010. But it’s still a great record, and with your roots in old-school British psychedelia, I don’t think the Brothers will have to work too hard to win you over. So, pour a glass of your favourite beverage, dim the lights — or, if it’s daytime, rebuild your closet music cave — and get ready for a pretty wild ride.

— Matt

* You’re a Beatles fan. Does ‘Setting Sun‘ remind you of anything in particular? How about ‘I’ll See You There‘ (apologies for the stream quality), a song they released almost 20 years later? Don’t worry, these guys have some pretty deep roots in old-school British psychedelia, too.

** The Brothers have always had an interesting visual component to their work. The rise of big beat in the 90s also lead to the rise of abstract, high-production-value music videos for techno music, often by ‘auter’ directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In 2011, they scored the fantastic spy-thriller-meets-coming-of-age film, Hanna. And, of course, those Further-style visuals have been part of their live show since the start. (Adam Smith directed a fantastic concert film, Don’t Think, documenting their show at Fuji Rock Fest in 2012.)