Review: The Chemical Brothers’ “Further”

Jul 1, 2010 2:56pm

In the last 14 years the Chemical Brothers have rightfully become one of the biggest electronica acts in the world.  Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have taken knob-twiddling and sound manipulation to new heights time and time again.  That being said, their last record, 2007′s “We Are The Night” was low on excitement and a bit of a task to get through.  Arguably, its most famous song was a bizarre collaboration with the Pharcyde’s Fatlip, entitled “The Salmon Dance.”  Sure, it was an interesting side-step and pretty funny, but it was no “Block Rockin’ Beats” or “Let Forever Be.”  Perhaps Rowlands and Simons knew that the last time around their formula didn’t quite do them justice and “Further” seems like a reductionist response to the last record’s shortcomings.  Consisting only of eight tracks, “Further “clocks in at just under fifty-two minutes and it flows somewhat seamlessly from track to track.  The Chems were always known for working with big name guest vocalists like Noel Gallagher, Beth Orton, Q-Tip and Richard Ashcroft.  Here, no big names are to be found.  While the big-billed guests were often highlights of their records, here, their absence seems to make the album seem less like an obvious push.  On the next record, it’d be nice to see the high-profile collaborations return, but on this album the strategy was the right call. It allows the groove to be the real center.  “Further,” in its title and its sound appears to be their attempt to push the limits of their genre.  While this record isn’t the ideal starting point for new fans and it may alienate some old ones, it’s definitely a top-notch, resounding success.  Opening track, “Snow” begins with a series of beeps and buzzes.  The feedback tone can at first be a little irritating, but it preps the song for a wonderful slow build.  A digitally manipulated bassline  enters, giving the track its first real hint of song structure.  At nearly the minute mark, little-known folk singer, Stephanie Dosen sings the repeated line, “Your love keeps lifting me, lifting me higher.”  You can take this song multiple ways. As it slowly builds, it’s less like a singing of praise due to any sort of religiosity and more like a calling card for the groove.  The sound is taking the genre to new heights and one hopes that those listening will equally be taken “higher” as they listen.  Combine that with the psychedelic and druggy associations with the rave culture and you get a plethora of possible meanings all within one repeated line.  What starts as a series of dissonant sounds becomes almost glorious and defiantly melodic by the track’s end.  It’s a marvel because it all has to do with the track’s changing background environment.  As it grows, it gets prettier and bolder, while the sung line remains the same.  Harmony vocals add a nice touch, giving this challenging track some sweetness.  “Escape Velocity” is next, clocking it at a weighty 11:57.  The Chemical Brothers have pretty much always worked well in such long-form.  It gives them room to stretch.  Here they stretch a woozy trance jam into near perfection.  It’s yet another slow-building piece, but this time its length and its scope are utterly epic.  It takes two minutes for the beat to come in, but before that we get a dizzying sonic circular bass pattern, combined with what plays like a tweaked out answer to the beginning refrain of the Who’s “Baba O ‘Riley.”  It slowly rises like a rocket getting ready to launch and when the beat comes in, it’s a pounding four-four, take- no-prisoners jam.  Along the way, notes get swished and bent.  Layers come and go and it ends up being an exquisite example of the modern electronic genre at its peak.  “Another World” at first sounds like a beautiful come-down session set to a bossa nova template, until the beat switches to a more minimalistic approach with tweaked and treated notes slowly bouncing around as if blown by some sort of digital wind.  Blasted on speakers , like the rest of this album, even at its sparsest moments, this track has a surrounding, environmental feel.  As it fluctuates from bounce to slow, pounding reverie, one feels brightness and celebration in the track.  It plays at times like a slower off-shoot of their 2002 single, “Star Guitar.” The warmth continues on “Dissolve,” which begins like a bright exercise in repetition until the drums kick in and a monster riff takes over.  It’s as if something amazing was just shot across the room. Throughout “Further,” Rowlands and Simons seem more amped than ever.  After several listens, it’s clear that this record strongly stands side by side with their classics, “Dig Your Own Hoe” and “Surrender.”  This album, by its nature will never achieve the popularity or get the recognition of those two records, but on the whole, it may be their most cohesive and enthralling work to date.  Considering the Autotuned nature of radio and that fewer and fewer listeners are given an option to think outside of the box without having to be openly proactive, it’s a sad statement that this record could potentially get lost.  “Dissolve,” like the rest of this record, proves itself to be an anomaly amongst the flock.  Yes, this is a highly programmed and syncopated, synthesized record, but there’s a very human, organic core underneath.  When the Chemical Brothers jam on a riff, they aren’t just letting their sequencers go for ten minutes at a time.  They play, and roll and scratch their way through it like virtuosos would on any other instrument.  It’s a true exploration of the limits and potential that sound can achieve.  “Horse Power” returns us to a darker, more aggressive sound, much like the incessant pounding on “Escape Velocity.”  A digitized voice repeats the title over a charging beat.  Every now and again, there are some pretty funny horse sounds thrown into the mix.  This is obviously meant for a serious, hardcore rave fan.  The beat is insistent and yet, though repetitive, the musicality is not lost.  The song has a particularly interesting bridge.  “Swoon” is maybe the track on here most likely to win over mainstream dance fans.  With a riff that sounds like a treated, distorted guitar, this song combines a disco bounce, an eighties pop sheen and a late-nineties “big-beat” sensibility.  This track is clear and bouncy and would make a great addition on any club DJ’s playlist.  It’s the kind of thing Daft Punk would’ve ruined with a sub-par rent-a-vocalist.  It actually sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place on Mylo’s amazing 2006 album, “Destroy Rock & Roll.” “K+D+B” makes good use of a clap-happy dance beat and pairs it with what very well could be some flangered and distorted steel drums.  A layer of synthesized fuzz is added and taken away for emphasis and throughout, it’s a solid, exuberant happy good time.  The lyrics are kept to a minimum, but as on “Snow,” the word “higher” is continuously repeated.  Over the years, the Chems have become experts in textural manipulation.  This track has many sonic soundscapes to explore.  The album closes with “Wonders of The Deep.”  Again, the recurring idea of out-traveling measured distance is conveyed in the song’s title.  The bass bursts throughout may also be a good title source.  The guitar riff here isn’t chopped up or mangled in any way, giving the track more of an experimental rock vibe.  Layers of synths combine with celebratory human voices, creating a refreshing feeling.  Yes, this is a triumphant ending to a triumphant disc.  “Further” is intended as a multimedia experiment.  You can pick up a deluxe version of the album packaged in a book with a bonus DVD, showcasing some extremely cool videos for each of the album’s eight  tracks.  If you can appreciate experiments with lights and animation, you’ll no doubt get a kick out of what the DVD portion has to offer.  If you are a fan, this is definitely the version worth picking up. The Chemical Brothers have achieved something amazing, here. They’ve come back with a classic, cohesive, rather stunning record.  It feels like a rebirth of the sound they helped create and popularize. Against all expectations, they have indeed managed to take their sonic dynamics “Further.”    

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