Thursday, February 7, 2013

Day Thirty-Seven: The Chemical Brothers - Brotherhood

Virgin Records ■ 5099923481817
Freestyle Dust ■ XDUST9LP

Released September 2, 2008
Produced by The Chemical Brothers

Side One:Side Two:
  1. Galvanize
  2. Hey Boy Hey Girl
  3. Block Rockin' Beats
  4. Do It Again
  1. Believe
  2. Star Guitar
  3. Let Forever Be
  4. Leave Home
Side Three:Side Four:
  1. Keep My Composure
  2. Saturate
  3. Out of Control
  1. Midnight Madness
  2. The Golden Path
  3. Setting Sun
  4. Chemical Beats
I believe I have managed, at this point, to cover my reluctance regarding compilations, so I'll let that pass. Part of that is because, more importantly, I'd never listened to the Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) before this. In fact, I slit the shrinkwrap just today to listen to this. I respected groups and artists like the Chemical Brothers or the Crystal Method or Daft Punk from afar, but was generally reluctant to touch on the intentionally repetitive segment of electronic music (also touched on briefly, this time with the Caustic Window compilation). I didn't understand it, really, and associated it strongly with actually going and seeing electronic artists perform, which I'd never done. Having actually done it now (to see French synthpop artist David Grellier, aka College), I don't know if the whole process makes sense to me personally. I enjoyed it, but man was that a confused audience. No one was sure how to clap or respond in general.

In any case, I developed my love for the more frenetic and bizarre segment of modern electronic music (generally speaking, "EDM", or "electronic dance music" to differentiate from the electronic music of prior decades) via people like Richard D. James instead, who tend to not have ultra-danceable beats at all. My brief exposure to someone's taste in more house/trance/electro style via the suggested viewing of the intensely "suggestive" (if you can even pretend to call those "suggestions") video for Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction", as well as a night's worth of trance and house played over the only LAN party I ever attended. I recognized the appreciation in the person playing it, but felt it wearing thin as the night went on--maybe justifiably, as I couldn't tell you whose music it was, and it might have failed as a representation. I also dabbled for only a moment with the "Hard House" mix of John Carpenter's Halloween theme, which struck me (and the ubiquitous John) as absurd and ridiculous. Those associations tended to keep me away for some time.

I picked up this compilation (a collection of Chemical Brothers singles, as the sticker on it notes) while I was still with Borders, during the time at which the brief, tiny test market for vinyl was ended and the remains were expunged via clearance, alongside a large percentage of standing multimedia that also could not be returned to the source for credit. It was severely clearanced (one of two LPs I picked up at this time, the other will horrify strangers, and cause eye-rolls from people who know me, I suspect), so I decided I'd go ahead and pick it up. I can't recall now, but I may have decided it would be worth it in case it went up in value, but more likely decided it was a decent deal and thus a good way to suddenly break into listening to something I didn't normally--that was the beginning of my most experimental phase, musically speaking.

Because I had nothing to associate it with or to otherwise push me into opening it, it sat aside for the last three or four years, untouched. That makes it, like BK-One's Rádio do Canibal, part of what I get out of this blog--reason to listen to the untouched and nearly-untouched records I own.

Obviously, all of this is building toward an understanding of where I'm coming from for this particular release: ignorance. While I always try to approach new music with an open ear and an open mind, the balance of knowledge behind it and the lack of familiarity or touchstones can make it an awkward thing to write about. It's worth noting (in my ever trivially-oriented pedantic way) that these are mostly radio or single edits where those exist: slightly chopped down versions of songs designed to play better on radio or in other free-flying, out-of-context areas.

They are packed on these two LPs alongside a booklet that has modified, screen-printed and generally monochromatic versions of the original (already minimally coloured and "simplistic" in most cases) single art the songs were drawn from, as well as a 12x12" screenprint-style flat. A nice little package, that feels a lot better than it looks from the outside as a non-gatefold 2x12".

"Galvanized" immediately called to mind, for me, the sounds of Euphrates-style production--Euphrates being a relatively obscure hip-hop group of Iraqi ancestry. There's a Middle Eastern style string sample (listed as being from Najat Aatabou's "Just Tell Me the Truth") that is most prominent in all of it, the production on it starkly contrasted with familiar Western production styles. Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest (who the otherwise unfamiliar may recall from the Black Keys/Hip-Hop  project Blakroc I covered earlier) features as a vocalist for the track, which uses both that broad, intense midrange of the Aatabou sample and rhythmic, unified bass and drum pounding to give a sense of drama to the track.

Thudding drum leads into a vocal sample from "The Roof is on Fire" by Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three, which has the ever-present sense of pumping up that samples like this tend to carry: "Hey girls, B-boys, superstar DJs, here we go!" that gives the impression that it's actually there to announce the song itself is about to take off. There's not a sudden lift off, especially because the sample is repeated throughout; instead, the song is trance-like (if not technically in genre terms, at least in auditory sense), with a focus on looped synths of distinctly electronic nature.

The intensely funky bass sample (of indeterminate origin, though various claims exist) is the focal point of "Block Rockin' Beats", with the Schoolly D sample ("Back with another one of those block rockin' beats") placed a bit above and away from the track, more like an announcement from someone introducing the Brothers than coming from an involved performer. Sampled drums (as opposed to electronically produced ones) give the song an overall more organic feel, though the intrusion of warping synths and siren-like scratch-style noises keeps anyone from mistaking it for anything but what it is.

While I found the previous recordings appreciable but outside my personal expanse, "Do It Again" changed that significantly: the sequenced low-end melody, is incredibly infectious, and is kept from wearing out its welcome with the surrounding squeaking rhythm, "Let's turn this thing electric" sample, and vocals of Ali Love ("Oh my god what have I done/All I wanted was a little fun/Got a brain like bubblegum/Blowin' up my cranium"). The fact that Love's lines match that awesome bass sequence yet are rendered at the higher end of his range makes them that much more enjoyable. The breaks for thumping bass, sustained synths and normally ranged vocals from Love are quite nice breaks, taking the clustered sound of the prior segments and letting it breathe for a moment.

Kele Okereke of Bloc Party gets to do vocals on "Believe", which was most exciting of all guests (barring one whose appearance is amusing in the context of this compilation). Distinctly dancey with its full four-on-the-floor beat, the addition of a vaguely distorted wash of low melody and intermittent siren-like noises encourages a rather oppressive atmosphere that's relieved somewhat by the Bloc Party-esque post-punk-y guitars and Kele's actual voice (that's not his guitar, though, so far as I can tell). After a rubbery "solo" of the electronic variety, the song veritably explodes, but finds itself calming back down to the constraints of the low end after a few bars. The high, pounding jitter of that "solo" is delightful, though.

The first track to avoid the trap of lower pitches, "Star Guitar" is sparkling and shiny at open, and is slowly phased through more smooth and comforting tones, that carry their way through the song, moving with gentle curves and slopes behind an expectedly strong, dance-y beat, though the moments those worming tones phase into the forefront are backed by a lighter version of the beat that adds a certain ambience (not ambiance) to those moments and makes them incredibly pleasant, though the clacking that speeds to a blur after them is quite nice in a different way.

Bringing back the sampled drumming and a more organic, live-sounding bass, "Let Forever Be" was the song that sounded most familiar to me. Perhaps because of Oasis's Noel Gallagher singing the vocals (not sampled, as he was involved in the song's creation). "How does it feel" he asks of various possibilities, with a thoroughly rock (and great) drum sample beneath it, and the warm phasing of 60s production worked into it.

"Leave Home" is one of the earliest tracks on the album, and is built heavily on rock instrumentation, even as it opens with only an echoing sample and a relaxed sort of alarm. Fuzzed-up wah-wah guitar samples and intense basslines are then moved in, a syncopated drum beat drops in and, in large part, takes over. By far, as the actual beats go, one of the best on this album. The bass (also a bit fuzzed) rolls over the top of the drums, but the clever construction of the drums takes the cake, by far. Some of the tracks give the feeling that they should have (or maybe even need) visual backing to complete them, but "Leave Home" is very complete by itself, despite relying only on very ordinary instrumental samples--or at least very samples of very ordinary instruments.

Leaping from that early track ("Leave Home" is from their debut album) straight to a track new for this compilation, "Keep Composure" features rapper Spank Rock. It's one of the filthiest--musically, not lyrically--tracks on the album, everything distorted and buried down at the bottom, roiling and burbling through a fuzzy juggernaut hum that zips upward every other beat. Binary electronic oscillations--the kind one gets from completing electronic circuits to make a simple noise--flutter upward through Spank Rock's verses, as the high-pitched beeps of a pinched woodwind sample (similar to the beep of early answering machines signaling message recording) are the only major accent on the bassier portions though. As with many tracks of this kind of "sleazy" feeling, this is a fun listen and just feels good.

Another of the scattered songs that aren't overtly heavy or hard, "Saturate" originates in a very nice near-stuttering melody that sounds like it's being jammed through a lo-fi electronic speaker, though it's replaced by a warbling, lower version of itself, before both are pushed down into the muck as a fuzzed up version that loses the halts for smoother transitions. The melody is repeated over this, then, by a variety of new sounds that build on top of each other to an apex--which suddenly drops off to only the warbling low-end version. The fuzzed up bit has a lovely clicking secondary rhythm that is just the perfect touch to what would otherwise be again in the internal-organ-rearranging bass-defined kind of track we've heard earlier. As this harder range of tracks goes, this is definitely one of the best on here.

I mentioned an amusing vocal guest who outstrips Kele in cool, and that is Bernard Sumner--that a man from New Order, who recorded the much more iconic album Brotherhood appears on this compilation is just entertaining in and of itself. Sumner is also joined by Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie at moments. It's a clever match, as the beat is intense and absurdly uptempo for the type of vocals either of these men deal in. Sumner's voice in particular half-ignores the beat, or seems to, because it moves at no more than a quarter of the same speed. When he begins repeating "We're out of control/Out of control..." it's like a hypnotic breakdown, almost, as if he can't escape that thought so long as they're running through this chorus. The second time through, the electronic portion of the track takes over, his repetitions slowing, but the music beginning to suggest guitars and a much brighter tone, but one that is suddenly chopped into a speeding bassline that carries Sumner off into electronic splintered scatter.

"Midnight Madness" actually uses an electronically filtered set of modulated vocal samples (think Transformers, a bit) as it works itself into a frenzy, before the beat actually drops, a bass melody catchy and thumping, but overlaid with a squall of distortion that rides over it like a cloudy sky. High-pitched squeals move into place a rather tightly played guitar-esque melody. The distortion follows it, though, with those squeals from before forming a tightly patterned high-pitched rhythm that expands itself into a return of the "midnight madness" vocal sample, after which the song breaks down into a burbling soup of sounds. Another of the most body-moving feels.

The actual sounds of "The Golden Path" are warmer and more comfortable than a lot of the rest: rounded corners aren't offset by distortion, fuzzing, or deep bass. Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips take on vocal duties, and it ends up sounding a lot more like an electronically-infused dance-punk, though the flute sample is terribly peculiar in this context. It ends up more like a story told over a backing than vocals built into the song--as the samples most explicitly are, but many of the "live" vocals also amount to. A shining upward-trending sequence as the song adds a sort of electronic chorale of "Aahs" moves the song in an overall upward direction throughout, the harmonized vocals of Coyne and Drozd oddly recalling many of the vocals of Bernard Sumner, though I would imagine that is coincidence--dance-inflected New Order notwithstanding (and possibly suggesting I'm being a bit thick-headed to call this coincidence).

Noel Gallagher returns in "Setting Sun", which is a return to the breakbeat style exhibited earlier, the way his vocals hover into existence and are surrounded by a buzzing not unlike swarmed insects gives a sort of benign menace to the song: like a movie's satanic plotline you take more as fun than terrifying. The shrieking siren-like sounds that announce the song and some of its breaks pierce in a way that avoids annoyance or discomfort while not failing to stand out noticeably. It feels more, as a beat, like something you would hear in and amongst people dancing in primal fashion, devoid of the self-conscious and free in movement.

The compilation closes with "Chemical Beats", the song that actually lead to their name (as the original Dust Brothers were not big on Simons and Rowlands using their name after they actually started touring). As with prior early song "Leave Home", "Beats" is less obviously electronic in manufacture: the central sound is electronic, but has the rough edges of many earlier electronic noises. There are drum machine drums this time, which even pull that oh-so-favourite move of speeding to a rising blur that holds the same place as bass drops in modern dubstep or breakdowns in the metallic veins of the past few decades' approach to hardcore (the kind that doesn't seem to relate to hardcore punk at all)--a moment to really catch an audience and bring their hearts to their throats before release.

As with my periodic forays into Daft Punk after their work on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, I don't find myself dismissive of these branches of electronic dance music, but I also don't find myself completely engaged with them. I often get the feeling that casual listening is inappropriate for these things, that the repetitions cause them to function better in a context where actions are guided by the sounds heard, where the song can be felt and "displayed", so to speak. Perhaps, though, I'm just of the wrong mind, musically, to really get this (I do actually enjoy it, largely, but a lot of it at once remains semi-exhausting for me). If anyone out there in the world has suggestions on how to grasp this more thoroughly, or to understand the development of it, I certainly welcome it. Until then, I shall plow away as I feel the urge, attempting to understand it exclusively on my own terms.

  • Next Up: The Church - Untitled #23
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