It’s no secret that the UK has a vibrant electronic music community that supports great producers. The UK electronic music “industrial complex” unequivocally supports innovative club, beat, and collage music that seem to consistently broaden the musicality of electronic music internationally. Record companies both indie and mainstream such as Warp, Cooking Vinyl, and Domino have kept Londoners banging ’til sunrise for 20 years or more. Radio perpetuates this scene and there are thousands upon thousands of electronic fans who never miss their weekly DJ set of choice. Matt Black and Jonathon More, two of London’s most enriching entrepreneurial electro-heads, formed the illustrious Ninja Tune label in 1990 and shortly thereafter their weekly radio DJ spot “Solid Steel” took off. In 2005 Simon Green, by then having released two LPs under the pseudonym Bonobo, followed the lead of Ninja Tune forebears such as Amon Tobin and Mr. Scruff in producing a DJ set and subsequently releasing the mix-tape commercially of this successful radio show. This was a spectacular move to supplement his first two albums’ acceptance by the local beat scene and Green enjoyed a rapid ascension out of the London underground and into the international beat scene. After 15 years in the game, with his incredible ear for up-and-coming female vocalists and easy going incorporation of jazz, hip hop, classical and international elements into his beats, Bonobo drops The North Borders (Ninja Tune 2013) and, while it’s nothing exceptionally groundbreaking, he continues to set the standard for somber deep end grooves that favor taste and subtlety over bombastic machismo.
Bonobo’s music pulls largely from the downtempo scene characterized by edge-of-the-dance-floor grooves best played at 3am. For those who dig downtempo heroes Zero 7, groove based hip hop producer Nujabes, or trip hop DJ Pretty Lights to name a few, this album will likely hit the spot. His inspiration grows with every album culminating in the exceptionally crafted 2010 release Black Sands, likely most listeners’ introduction to his music. His albums come together with a rich organic feel providing insight into his skill as an instrumentalist. For the most part, he plays all the instruments on record and when he tours it’s split 50/50 DJ sets vs. live band bringing his nasty beats to fruition. As with most producers, his records display a bewildering number of instruments. What sets Bonobo apart, including on this new release, is his taste for how to utilize the kind of maximalist tendencies that modern technology allows.
The North Borders employs Green’s heavy beat driven bass playing, harp, gamelan-style struck idiophone, tactful dubby drops, lo-fi fuzz, acoustic guitar, 8-bit vibrato, thumb piano, bells, clacking wooden percussion, strings, clarinet, polyrhythmic drumming…. in one song. His organizational skills are jaw-dropping, he’d be a fantastic wedding planner. The most impressive thing about this album is how rich and uncluttered it feels. He nails a singular focus that seems impossible to attain with so many layers and such a wide assortment of sounds. It’s got taste. It’s propulsive. It’s beautiful with knock out female vocalists, and masculine in its uncompromising heft. It’s dancey, trancey, prancey, and vixen. However the album fails to have that spark of wonder infused within it. It sits too safely in the pocket, albeit with no legitimate contender for best in the genre. While there are some novel elements scattered about, it does not level up with Black Sands and for this very reason it leads to question exactly what Bonobo’s legacy will be with future albums.
Bonobo’s “Heaven for the Sinner”
Starting out, the album plays it safe for the first couple tracks and seems to lazily welcome listeners back to Green’s beat sensibilities. While the opening track’s vocals by Grey Reverend have a nice timbre to them, they don’t quite pull the blasé song elements together. Things start to open up when the first single “Cirrus” arises with the dopest use of a kalimba ever found in electronic music coming in with brushed 16th notes on the snare that support a surging bassline before slowly erupting with swirling fuzz that breathlessly leaves the listener with a kinked neck from the obligatory mid-crescendo head bob. Erykah Badu opens the next track “Heaven For the Sinner” providing an avant garde soul feel that has never manifested on any prior Bonobo albums. “Jets” has a simple vocal sample that provides a strong 70’s soul feel and therefore a solid hip hop sentiment when the bass kick heavy percussion comes in. “Towers” has an awesome skittery repetitive 8-bit melody that gives way to trance-like acoustic guitar which allows the focus to rest on featured vocalist Szjerdene’s great downtempo vocal delivery. “Know You” has great short vocal samples which amount to an instrumentation all their own, similar to Pogo’s sampling style of using cinema sound bytes mixed with swelling organ chords which James Blake employs to near perfection. “Antenna” forges an awesome duet between synth flutes and sampled vocals that sounds at once live and machinelike, recalling Hundred Waters’ amazing 2012 self-titled release. “Transits” again showcases Szjerdene’s ethereal vocals over japanese shamisen and acoustic guitar. Final track “Pieces” rests on syncopated overlays of singer Cornelia’s rich and nubile vocals which gives a nostalgic sentiment as the album fades into a string and xylophone conclusion.
The album is good. Bonobo’s work is unparalleled. The album is really good, frankly. But safe. While likely unattainable by anyone other than Bonobo, it still leaves a yearning in the listener already well versed in his work. nd at over an hour in length, the album concludes without having ever pulled the listener in as deeply as his last couple of albums did. Failing to be satiated after a Bonobo album is rare. Even more, it’s aggravating when you listen to it a few more times and still never get that satisfaction of hearing truly innovative work for which the artist must have struggled to push himself out of his previous sensibilities. There are standout moments: Erykah Badu’s appearance is a very welcome convergence of two pioneering artists and really anchors the album. “Cirrus” and “Know You” are fresh and exciting, the kind of songs a fan would want the whole album to feel like. But too many tracks on here feel like banal filler. It seems unconscionable to say because of how incredibly rich they are. But despite the layers, despite the complexity, Bonobo seems to be relaxing on a proven formula which was inspiring in past records but in this effort sometimes comes off as blasé and lacking in inspiration.
For those new to Bonobo, let this album speak loudly about his strength as a producer, engineer, and instrumentalist. Be inspired by his choice of vocalists. Hear how grand his music must be in his dreams, one man crafting such elegant and rich textures that literally never grow old. But recognize that where this album is sometimes breathtaking in its maximalism and beauty, Black Sands and Days to Come were explosively fresh and genuinely awe-inspiring for their individuality and superiority in the kind of innovative, introspective jazz/hip hop beat fusion that Bonobo is capable of. This album is good, memorable even. But hopefully it will be but a stepping stone to Bonobo’s next grand achievement that his biggest fans are still holding their breath for.