Release Date: Jul 17, 2015
Record label: Astralwerks / EMI / Virgin
Genre(s): Dance, Electronic
If you view pop music as a perpetual war between the Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia of guitars, dance music and hip-hop/R&B, it might appear as though dance music has won. Out there it’s all rave builds and Alton Towers bass drops, house revivals and wall-to-wall superstar DJs. Even the frat boys of the US, who for years viewed electronic music as some decadent European affectation for ambisexuals, have now succumbed to EDM.
An album that fades in -- grinding and beeping like a space shuttle returning to Earth -- Born in the Echoes is the first LP in five years from the Chemical Brothers. It's a journey back home for the big beat or stadium dance duo, just like that spaceship intro implies, and one with all the necessary mutations. The dark, otherworldly, and prog rock sounds that kept many away from their 2010 release Further are back, although here they're framed much more attractively.
Twenty years strong, eight albums deep, and five years' anticipation, the hope is that The Chemical Brothers' latest, Born in the Echoes, will introduce some subtlety and song craft to today's dancefloor bangers. Writing electronic pop songs is the British duo's forte. Their focus is on shaping electronically created sounds to play the role traditionally filled by a vocal, thus making it about the structure and not a featured vocal.
The Chemical Brothers are arguably one of the most important groups in dance history. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ peerless ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ introduced rock and psychedelia to dance music’s palette in 1997, and they pioneered combining indie vocalists with big beats on early records like scorching Noel Gallagher collaborations ‘Setting Sun’ (1997) and ‘Let Forever Be’ (1999).But for a while in the 2000s, they threatened to become one of the most predictable. During an underwhelming run from 2002’s ‘Come With Us’ to 2007’s ‘We Are The Night’, you knew what to expect: guest singers like Kele Okereke (‘Believe’) or Richard Ashcroft (‘The Test’), and mass-appeal beats.
"The future? I’ll see you there!" These words come in the middle of the latest album from London dance music survivors the Chemical Brothers. It could be a sly nod to their influence on this decade’s global electronic boom. Back in the mid-1990s, acts like the Chems, Fatboy Slim, and the Prodigy were primed to vanquish guitar rock once and for all while ushering in a squelching age of rave.
It’s strange to think that the Chemical Brothers have become something of an anomaly in electronic music, a genre they’ve helped run for 20 years. Since the duo’s last full-length release in 2010, mainstream dance music has turned toward the spastic energy of what has come to be known as EDM. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands are now the old guard, elder statesmen in a corner of the word overtaken by Skrillex, Avicii, Tiesto, and others holding court in dance music’s new wave.
While Further served as an immersive, cerebral palate cleanser for those worn out on weak guest spots and errant genre experiments of The Chemical Brothers in their early 2000s output, Born In The Echoes shows duo Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons essentially rehashing their trusty old formula: either craft some gorgeous beats (duh) and find a breathy, recently popular singer to ground it, or set loose the samples and hope they end up somewhere cool and not corny. Fortunately, the bros put their bravest, weirdest foot forward on this one and pull off a well-sequenced, diverse collection of songs that emphasize their skill as pop producers as well as their rewarding impatience as composers. Not only do they have the foresight to ground their guest collabs this time in the kind of atmospheres in which their singers do best (Cate Le Bon darts around a dusty drumbeat, Beck 1000-yard stares his way into synth-pop bliss, and St.
How do The Chemical Brothers do it? Though they have long since passed into dance music’s hall of fame, they are still known primarily as a singles band, building an arsenal of killer tracks big enough to suggest they might even headline Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage one day, rather than the Other Stage they destroyed comprehensively on the festival’s closing night. This is their eighth artist album, 20 years on from Exit Planet Dust – and it does prove surprisingly difficult to name the other six. In that time though they have consistently delivered high octane dancefloor rushes, maintaining high standards and proving their flexibility with a swathe of high profile collaborations.
No matter what genre an artist represents, tradition is almost always respected. That’s the hope behind the Chemical Brothers’ return album Born in the Echoes, anyway, a full-hearted, smartly-styled shot at classic Detroit techno and Chicago house sounds paired with the duo’s own signature brand of retro trip-hop—styles that have been suspiciously all but absent from the current electronic zeitgeist. In one way or another, the ephemeral conventions of modern EDM have pressed their influence on up-and-coming stars and pioneers alike, and responses have run the gamut from graceful to disastrous.
The first two tracks on Born In The Echoes, The Chemical Brothers' eighth album and first in five years, make it seem that Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons aren't worried about the EDM scene they inadvertently influenced, but are interested in how they can get involved. "Sometimes I Feel So Deserted" is much scuzzier than EDM's usual production sheen, but it still has snare rolls, cheesy vocals and whooshes like Tiësto's private plane. "Go" is a rehash of "Galvanize" with extra fist-pumping synths in the chorus that will appeal more to frat boys than Q-Tip fans.
Ask someone for their critical opinion and in order to attain an honest one, tell them to pretend they're in a world of no sevens. It’s a cute argument, as made the The Verge editor Nilay Patel on a recent episode of his website’s podcast. There’s merit in the motion, particularly when applied to a situation in which one might wish to save face or avoid upset, but then the whole ‘thumbs in the middle’ thing can make for both a passive and active judgement depending on the subject matter.
The Chemical Brothers are Bill Clinton to Skrillex's Barack Obama — the genius Nineties triangulators who proved dance music could rock blocks without diluting its techno soul. The latest from the U.K. duo hits harder and lower than their last album, 2010's Further, with guest-vocal turns from artists as varied as Q-Tip and St. Vincent over tracks that could've torched an outdoor rave in 1995.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons noted that his work with partner Tom Rowlands has lasted “longer than quite a lot of marriages.” He’s right. The two first met at the University of Manchester in 1988, and have conquered the world several times over in the years that followed. Albums like Exit Planet Dust (1995) and Dig Your Own Hole (1997) are widely regarded as electronic-music cornerstones, while efforts like Surrender (1999) and Come with Us (2001) are peppered with plenty of classic cuts.
Whether it's as a long-term fan, one who cites them as a gateway into dance music, or one who has only asked for another one of them "Block Rockin' Beats" once or twice, almost everyone seems to have some connection to the Chemical Brothers. They're one of the few acts that have managed to remain respectable to the dance music community whilst simultaneously drawing in reams of on-the-fencers by constantly delivering chart hits. That's not an easy feat.
Electronic dance music—deep, dank, disturbing dance music—made a lot more sense 20 to 30 years ago. Back then, visions of Blade Runner were still precautionary tales and not a reminder of our own foolhardy march toward self-inflicted extinction. We were scared of Big Brother watching us. Now we know Big Brother is watching us, and don't particularly care, because we know all they're looking at is clickbait listicles, cat memes, and pictures of what we're eating.
The dance duo extend the decade-long dilution of their canon with their new record, which is as technically accomplished as ever, but creatively exhausted. Perhaps trying to avoid the crass build-drop-build of EDM and trap, tracks such as Under Neon Lights (featuring a wasted St Vincent) vacillate weakly in the middle ground. Other producers, such as Barnt and Jon Hopkins, are ripped off, and old tricks are trotted out, including a Q-Tip guest spot and another almost-remake of Tomorrow Never Knows (though without Noel Gallagher’s beefy songwriting).
Trading under the name The Chemical Brothers, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have built their own universe, their own scene. Their imitators gave up trying to compete a long time ago, and so now they stand alone and above. There is no concession to the push button bangers of the EDM world, nor is it some period re-enactment to create some kind of "real".
On “Under Neon Lights,” the best track on the Chemical Brothers’ return-to-form eighth record, St. Vincent’s voice hovers over cascading beats, wondering, “Is this really all I want?” It’s a brilliant, kaleidoscopic four minutes that reflects the chaos and unease of our era. The veteran duo and its guests are challenging and provocative throughout “Born in the Echoes,” even as they creatively blow up dance floors.
The Chemical Brothers are certainly not a cult band in commercial terms, yet as artists they seemingly operate outside the mainstream. Distancing themselves as far as possible from the EDM scene they indirectly helped to spawn, a title of a song on Born In The Echoes, “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” tell its own story of the lack of kinship they feel with that movement. Instead, their affinity is with the vocalists they’ve collaborated with over the years.
The Chemical Brothers were making dance music for rock audiences long before Calvin Harris landed an Emporio Armani underwear sponsorship. For better or worse, the British duo's eighth LP is a reminder of how loyal they've remained to the chunky "big beat" style that made them an alt-rock concern 20 years ago. Where they differ from EDM wannabes is the depth and texture they put into their productions, even if Born In The Echoes feels crafted with party-loving festival audiences in mind.