It’s always a nice surprise when an electronic dance artist, broadly speaking, cements their identity and sound on a second album – a place where many have tripped up and failed.
Hudson Mohawke, AKA Scotland’s own Ross Birchard, made a substantial impact with his metallic trap and electro-hip hop 2009 debut Butter. The album had some massive tunes but it also struggled with maintaining listeners’ interest over a whole record.
Lantern is still very much a hip hop and electronic record – though any trap tendencies are harder to spot here – but with this album Birchard has created a world that is as diverse, compelling and complete sounding as, say, Daft Punk’s seminal Discovery album.
Typically albums of this genre offer up a smorgasbord of guest vocalists but Lantern is less reliant on stunt casting and the artists used here (and these are singers not the expected rap performers) appear sparingly and remain consistently and effectively anonymous.
Miguel is undoubtably the biggest name featured, but other singers include Jhene Aiko, Irfance and Antony (of The Johnsons). Between them they populate songs that have no drops to speak of, with Miguel in particular possessing a dystopian melancholy befitting of the bleeping and ominous clanks of rave-R’n’B ballad ‘Deepspace’.
‘Very First Breath’ has Irfane’s blue-eyed soul voice set against thumping beats and tinny keyboards with an overall mood that conjures up a ‘Halo’-like majesty but without Bey’s, albeit essential, histrionics. It’s a bona-fide quality pop song which stands testament to Birchard’s evolvement as a canny composer.
‘Indian Steps’, with androgynous queer star Anthony, may at first seem like a wasted opportunity but is a tender and rippling soul mid-tempo and ‘Resistance’ finds Jhere Aiko successfully come to grips with spare and claustrophobic future R’n’B. All of those tracks have a yearning introspective quality, they are all slower tempos, providing Lantern with its troubled but essential human heart.
The remainder of Lantern is Birchard and his machines, and it’s on these tracks, almost three quarters of the album, where he re-engages with dance music of the kind built for massive festival sets.
‘Kettles’ is a sparkling, solely orchestral track which sounds like a compressed variation of the E.T. theme and leads directly into Lantern’s masterpiece – the flamboyant and bombastic ‘Scud Books’. Playing like the second part of ‘Kettles’, the macho brass from that track is retained but played in competition with a zigzagging synth hook, monumental beats and trap percussion that when combined with such skill makes resistance, as they say, futile. Like an almost ludicrous theme tune to a just discovered superhero of the day, it sounds as though this entity is here to save us all, which is probably exactly the point.
‘Shadows’ dances around to florescent Nintendo 64 beep-patterns. ‘Lil Djembe’ has a nerve-jangling xylophone, percussive high hats and an addictive and jolting staccato mania.
‘Ryderz’ comes full circle with Birchard taking inspiration from early Kanye releases (Hudson Mohawke is signed to West’s GOOD liable and Birchard has production credits on the Cruel Summer compilation). With its use of an old soul vocal sample taken from DJ Rogers’ ‘Watch Out for the Riders’, which is subsequently sped up and repeated over spluttering and kinetic hip-hop beats, ‘Ryderz’ is instantly anthemic and has all the hallmarks of becoming a classic. It may not sound like anything else here but its breadth and ambition is in keeping entirely with Birchard’s current vision.
Lantern plays out with a triptych of increasingly optimistic high-shine and delirious synth tracks. ‘Portrait of Luci’ has a portentous, choral atmosphere which leads into ‘System’, a multi layered, manic and skittering rave track with a massive build and is one of the few bass tracks featured.
‘Brand New World’ in particular reinforces the Daft Punk comparison with a repetitive guitar sample chopped up and played in conjunction with a joyous, but never dumb, power-pop hook.
Birchard, then, has managed the near impossible in creating an album that is essentially one of a dance producer by making it consistently engaging, three-dimensional and genuinely exciting. With his seemingly instinctive knack for melody, pop or otherwise, and ability to create separate but cohesive environments which the listener can get lost in, Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern shines far brighter than any other dance album heard so far this year.