After the disappointment of the past three albums, The Chemical Brothers return to form with a banging display of renewed vitality. John Earls bows down to a late-period masterpiece
Over their previous three albums, it had appeared The Chemical Brothers were content to become a heritage act operating, in the studio at least, to diminishing returns. We Are The Night was Chems-by-numbers. Further was at least an interesting experiment, where Tom Rowlands started singing, but was too downbeat to thrive.
Most recently, 2015’s Born In The Echoes started to get them back on track. But Ed Simons didn’t tour it, focusing instead on academic work. Simons was replaced on stage by Adam Smith, their longtime visuals exec, who is more used to directing Doctor Who and Dickensian BBC1 period dramas than manipulating banks of keyboards. Both Simons and Rowlands spoke openly about possible retirement.
Then came last year’s shows at Alexandra Palace. The pair met at university, so perhaps it’s apposite Simons’ academia has seemingly revived the duo’s hunger. Those concerts were a spectacular reminder of why The Chemical Brothers are the best live act pure dance music has to offer. Were they busy transferring that energy to the studio? Yes. Yes, they were. No Geography is comfortably The Chemical Brothers’ best album since 2005’s Push The Button, ranking with that and Dig Your Own Hole as their greatest work.
Loads of bangers
It’s a late-period masterpiece, for sure, but that’s because rather than maturing their sound, Rowlands and Simons have rediscovered their vitality. Basically, there are a load of bangers – and who doesn’t want that? First single Free Yourself hinted the Chems might be up to no good, a no-frills jolt of primitivism. MAH followed, and here No Geography’s escapism is unleashed.
Simons has long been an engaging, rational commentator on social media. His, and presumably the quieter Rowlands’, fury at the political landscape is vented via the iconic “I’m mad as hell and I ain’t going to take it no more!” speech from the movie Network over the kind of clattering beats that sent Block Rockin’ Beats stellar.
It’s matched by the relentless one-two of opening songs Eve Of Destruction and Bango, where skittering cowbells feature heavily and you wonder if the album will ever let up. The title track’s ambient wash and calming voiceover hints at relaxation, but is still bedded in by an elastic bassline. We’ve Got To Try is built on a powerful gospel sample, promptly offset by giant drums and their chewiest electro hook since Music: Response.
It helps that guests are kept to a minimum, ensuring a coherence lacking on some feature-heavy past work. Norwegian singer Aurora and Japanese rapper Nene serve their songs rather than overshadowing them. Aurora gets the one truly chilled moment, with Catch Me I’m Falling a familiar mood from past album finales sung by Beth Orton.
A £44 boxset has an extra 12″ featuring instrumental versions of three album tracks. Die-hard fans will recognise the spirit of that 12″ from the Chems’ early promo series Electronic Battle Weapon, where they used to preview tracks in their DJ sets. Shorn of its vocals, The Universe Sent Me is even more intense.
Is this The Chemical Brothers properly back on form or a temporary respite? Right now, who cares? No Geography is a fair title. On this form, The Chemical Brothers are finally ready to take on the world again.