The Chemical Brothers: Born in the Echoes – Album review

John Preston

Marching Krautrock with Welsh-born alt-folk artist Cate le Bon delivering vocals with appropriate Germanic stylings that has a bracing three-and-a-half-minute pop structure is not how you might imagine the title track to The Chemical Brothers’ eighth album to sound. It’s odd but accessible, funky but strict and, like a lot of Born in the Echoes, it sounds like the future without ever resorting to trend-chasing.

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have made an album that is wonderfully produced, it just sounds so good. I played it alongside another album released on the same day by a relatively new – and massively hyped – young electro-dance duo which sounded embarrassingly dated and amateurish in comparison. Not bad then, for two men that have been making music to essentially jump up and down to for the last 25 years.

Q-Tip‘s charismatic rapping returns after the global success of 2005’s Galvanise – really, a decade ago? – on the disco-indebted, wobbling bass throb of ‘Go’. The Chemical Bothers have always selected their guest vocalists with supreme care and subtlety – frequent slots have gone to alt-folk queen Beth Orton, the aforementioned Q-Tip and Tim Burgess. All of them idiosyncratic performers who work alongside the duo as opposed to dominating and selling what could be, essentially, a good marketing idea but little else.

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It’s a surprise and a thrill then to hear art-pop’s unstoppable show-woman St Vincent on ‘Under Neon Lights’, the album’s most psychedelic and seemingly unstructured track. ‘As she moves to suicide, got no husband, got no wife,’ so goes Annie Clark’s robotic premonition whilst synths spin and radiate around her with chaos and the inevitable slip into disorder constantly brimming around its edges. It’s a revelation.

‘Reflexion’ and ‘Just Bang’ don’t feature vocalists and demonstrate that Rowlands and Simons’ ability to make what many would consider core Chemical Brothers songs is still well within their grasp. Both are dance tracks but of quite radically different flavours. Where ‘Reflexion’ is a pounding and endlessly building electronic track featuring machines that sounds manic and kaleidoscopic, ‘Just Bang’ is a throwback to the house music coming out of NYC circa 1988, full of samples and space and dispossessed cowbells.

‘Taste of Honey’ is an ambient buzzing oddity, quite literally, with Hammer-House-of-Horror sawing violins terrorising the final 60 seconds. It’s great but also a relief that at just under three minutes it’s also the shortest track here.

It’s only on the big beat and monotonous ‘I’ll See You There’ and similarly repetitive ‘Sometimes I Feel So Deserted’ that the boys sound tired and as if they’re going through the (albeit their own) motions.

Over an intricate but blissed-out house groove, Beck‘s sad, almost colourless vocals tell the story of a vulnerable, older man: ‘I’m wide open but you’re drifting away from me’. The thing that he is losing is not specified but it could be anything: youth, energy or a lover. It is a beautiful comedown but a comedown nonetheless. ‘Wide Open’ ends Born in the Echoes, an album that is as experimental, dynamic and as essential as some of The Chemical Brothers’ best. Proof that even when you really have nothing left to prove, a deep love and remaining passion for your craft can continue to shine through and cut razor-sharp.

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About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.