I had never heard of Bonobo, who is the alias of 40-year-old British producer Simon Green, until sometime in the past six months or so, through friends who are more in touch with DJs, EDM, electronic music, etc. And I’ll admit that I’ve never listened to a Bonobo album, or even a single Bonobo song, aside from his latest LP, Migration. So going in, I had zero expectations.
To my pleasant surprise, the album is great. There isn’t a bad song on here, and while Bonobo maintains a signature sound of shuffling beats, lush instrumentation and songs that swell to climaxes, he changes things up just enough track to track to keep the album interesting, inventive and, above all, gorgeous.
Bonobo stated that the record was supposed to represent music migrating across continents and between cultures, and the theme definitely shines through, but I enjoyed the consistency of certain hallmarks of his arrangements; harp and acoustic guitar arpeggios, light, treble piano riffs, clapping, shuffling beats, tinkling percussion, huge string sections, live woodwind orchestras, and the feeling that every song was building toward a climax within the style and utilizing the pieces the song establishes in its first third.
Three of the songs here feature guest vocalists and a full lyric sheet- Rhye‘s Milosh, Hundred Waters‘ Nicole Miglis and Nick Murphy, who formerly went by the moniker Chet Faker. I think the Rhye feature, “Break Apart”, is the best song on the album, sequenced as the second track following the busy, piano-looping, drum-blasting title track the kicks the album off. The clap and snare-roll beat, which sounds striking between a finger-picked acoustic guitar and full woodwind section, is a perfect arrangement for Milosh. Rhye’s 2013 album (and the duo’s only release), Woman, is magnificent, and this track would have been among the best songs on that album. Combined with the fact that Milosh is singing about the divorce from the woman that the entirety of Woman was written about serves to turn the song into a nostalgic, wistful, cathartic epilogue to that LP, appearing three years later.
The album continues with the eight minute techno-influenced experiment “Outlier”, which is fine but not something I’m in love with, then moves to “Grains”, another standout reminiscent of early XXYYXX with its moaning vocal samples, and features Bonobo’s familiar claps, rattles and tinkling percussion, alongside a piano and grand string section that brings the song to throbbing climax. It’s followed by “Second Sun”, a break from the claustrophobia of “Grains” that, backed by a wall of fuzz, feels a bit like an ambient work ala Tim Hecker, but more melodic, building a harp and guitar arpeggio into an epic, anthemic string crescendo that truly does feel like a sunrise. The first half then closes out with Nicole Miglis’ feature, “Surface”, where both Bonobo and Miglis perform admirably, but the soft, falsetto vocals, looping over each other amidst one of the busiest, loudest arrangements on the record, almost feel like a bit much relative to the stripped-back “Break Apart”.
I don’t think the album’s second half fares quite as strongly as its first, but the kick off “Bambro Koyo Ganda”, which heavily features singing and chanting by Moroccan traditional musical collective Innov Gnawa, is well done – the hand claps, ringing triangles and generally percussion-heavy arrangement feels authentic to the Moroccan vocals and doesn’t strike me as ‘white dude thinks it’s cool to feature ethnic sounds’, as tracks like this can tend to go. The B side feels generally darker and more dancey, with the shuffling harp picking “Kerala”, the trip-hop of “Ontario” and the most minimal track on the album, the penultimate “7th Sevens”, which fails to stand out until a wonderful woodwind orchestra fills in from all sides. Murphy’s feature, “No Reason”, is a bit bland, but that’s probably just because his singing feels so weak and generic- the eerie, minimalist production makes it superior to anything in the Chet Faker playbook. The record closes on a high note with the understated, vocal sampling, string and acoustic guitar featuring “Figures”, which loops its way into a spacious climax and then loops back down to reverb-drenched, ambient strings reminding me a bit of a miniature Disintegration Loops.
The album works well as an ambient piece, but a more engaging listen is rewarded by the wonderful live instrumentation forgone too frequently in the world of electronic music, where synthesizers traditionally dominate. While I don’t love every vocal performance and sample, Bonobo never beats them to death, juxtaposing every song featuring vocals next to one without. I think the sequencing works well, and I like that the front side feels more epic while the back is darker and dancier. All in all, I’m thoroughly impressed- there are no major flaws to speak of, the music doesn’t get boring, and there are surprises nestled within every song. I’ll be looking forward to what he does next.