Release Date: Sep 9, 2014
Record label: Anti
Genre(s): Electronic, Club/Dance
Last April, Simian Mobile Disco travelled to the California desert, willing themselves into creating an album like they've never made before. Taking three days to write and rehearse, using only a modular synth, sequencer and a mixer, the British two-piece went on to record the new material live in front of 900 fans at nearby Joshua Tree National Park. To the layman, Whorl wasn't quite the grand departure the band envisioned — this brand of instrumental, classic techno doesn't stray too far from what they've pumped out on their last three releases — but with repeat listens, Whorl exposes itself as a complex and fulfilling piece of art.
Simian Mobile Disco may always struggle to shed their image as purveyors of raucous electro house. That is how they were first and best known, that is how many people will continue to see them, even if the guest vocalists and pop hooks are long gone. But in the last four years, in which time they've released two albums and collaborated with the likes of Bicep and Roman Flügel, James Ford and Jas Shaw have pursued their love of drawn-out dance floor grooves.
Before James Ford and Jas Shaw could even drop a proper release as Simian Mobile Disco, they were indirectly welcoming in a new generation of clubber beneath the EDM flag. Midway through 2006, Justice vs Simian’s “We Are Your Friend” saturated sound systems, turning the globe onto the dance-punk of Justice and laying the groundwork for Ford and Shaw’s analog exploits. Having already cultivated a fanbase with the electropop of their former outfit, the duo introduced a new core to the energy of well-crafted tech-house.
James Ford and Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco have spent the last decade cresting waves and skirting irrelevance to arrive at where they are today. After splintering from rock quartet Simian in 2005, Ford and Shaw turned toward the type of high-energy, melodically palatable electro that came to be known for a mercifully brief spell as “blog-house,” releasing one of the genre’s most colorful and striking full-lengths in the form of the 2007 debut Attack Decay Sustain Release. The title of SMD’s 2009 follow-up, Temporary Pleasure, suggested the London duo’s dance-pop might be getting stale, so the following year saw them take a successful left turn into hard techno territory, launching the Delicatessen label and releasing an enjoyable batch of roilers in the form of that year’s singles collection Delicacies.
The making of Whorl was such a break from Simian Mobile Disco's previous methods that James Ford and Jas Shaw considered releasing the album under a different name. It's not a truly live set but "amalgamations of live recordings," as they word it. During April 2014, they recorded material at Space Cave Studio in London (over the course of a few days), then performed improvised one-offs a week later in a desert north of California's Yucca Valley and at Pappy & Harriet's, a venue in the same state's Pioneertown.
Ditching their computers, Simian Mobile Disco recorded live(ish) in the Californian desert using two modular synths, two sequencers and a mixer. The result is akin to a live album from beard, never-quite-redeemed German synth pioneers Tangerine Dream, full of stately melodies and warm electronic moods, albeit with the occasional added dose of 2014 dancefloor nous. It sounds great, then, with the squishy electronics of ‘Dandelion Spheres’, an early beat-less highlight.
Simian Mobile Disco has always walked a line between the strict rules of straight-up dance music and the free, experimental nature of underground rock. Now, on Whorl, they've thrown all convention out the window and trekked to the desert to look at stars. Literally written and rehearsed in the desert with a simple setup of analog gear, the album was subsequently recorded live in front of 900 fans—and that's the most interesting thing about it.
New rave, for the most part, was a bunch of indie groups taking on the iconography of dance music, but not the sound or instrumentation. For James Ford and Jas Shaw, though, it seems to have been an impetus for change. After dissolving their indie group Simian, they decided to make a go of their remix alias Simian Mobile Disco, the pair’s 2007 debut Attack Decay Sustain Release a contemporary and accessible take on house and electro that was, in its investigations of analogue sounds and banging drum machine patterns, if anything slightly ahead of the curve.
Daniel Avery may have roused popular interest for more acidic shades of house and techno, but on Whorl Simian Mobile Disco have gone the whole hog, grafting full-blown kosmische onto cranky electronic beats. Over the album's twelve tracks they try to cover everything this entails, from ear-caressing analogue tone poems to sleek kinetic bangers and growling slow-builders. When it's good, it's really good – the sheer textural variation, the deft juxtaposition of soft and hard and the playful manipulation of machinery on the album's better tracks are a sheer joy to listen to.
Simian Mobile Disco’s “Tits and Acid” was for a very brief time a pounding anthem for pockets of the mid-to-late noughties. If the London duo’s earliest material soundtracked neon jeans and 3-for-2 deals on cheap pills at club nights that no longer exist, their latest, Whorl, feels intended to be a contemplative and gentle comedown. James Ford and Jas Shaw recorded all of Whorl live in the Mojave desert in California to a crowd of 900 people using only a couple of modular synths, a few sequencers and a mixer.