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North Coast Headliners The Chemical Brothers Back To Basics On New Album

By Chicagoist in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 27, 2015 4:50PM

The Chemical Brothers, photo via their Facebook page

Next month is the twentieth anniversary of the debut album from The Chemical Brothers, Exit Planet Dust.

After changing their name from The Dust Brothers (which had been taken already by an American production duo) to The Chemical Brothers, their first album hit at a perfect time. Basically in the doldrums between the heady Madchester scene of the late '80s and electronica trend of the late '90s, 1995 found dance music hurting. Grunge and alternative rock were saturating the music scene. Gangster rap dominated urban radio. So when two awkward, limey Brits (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) decided to wake dance music up by merging it with the head-banging quality of hard rock, something certainly changed.

Exit Planet Dust rocked harder than most rock records of the era, especially the po-faced ultra-serious post-grunge bands dominating radio and MTV. Weaving samples with their own productions made Chemical Brothers more of a production unit instead of just two DJs spinning records. The psychedelic throwback look of the two hippies on the album cover screamed that this album was something different. The duo spent the next couple of years remixing British royalty like Manic Street Preachers and Primal Scream, solidifying their stature in the rock world. By the time their second album, Dig Your Own Hole was unleashed in 1997, the world had picked up on the Big Beat sound of The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and Moby. Even U2 was playing catch up to the brash and loud dance sounds of The Chemical Brothers.

2015_07_chem_bros_album.jpg All scenes have an expiration date. However, in 2015 the world has come full circle from 1997, with DJs getting paid more than rock bands and selling out arenas. Do The Chemical Brothers benefit? Does a high tide raise all boats? It turns out, not so much. Where The Chemical Brothers were always uncomfortable with adoration from the media, the new crop of EDM superstars relish the limelight. These DJs all look like models and gallivant around the stage in front of thousands adoring teens.

You could argue that the music on the Chemical Brothers eighth album Born In The Echoes would fit seamlessly onto the playlist of any headlining EDM act this summer.

The problem with Born In The Echoes is that it sounds like the boys have stopped discovering new niches within the dance music world. The guys were always a step ahead of the pack. Ushering in pastoral psychedelia a couple years ahead of The Flaming Lips 1999 masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. Merging hip hop with rock beats years ahead of the putrid rap-rock trend of 1999. Trying their hand at merging world music with hard dance beats years before Damon Albarn created Gorillaz. Unfortunately, the new recordings sound like retreads.

"Sometimes I Feel So Deserted" tries really hard to get the party started, but to not much avail. Q-Tip returns on the single "Go," but it is a pale remake of their previous pairing, the 2005 hit "Galvanize," even though the baseline during the verses absolutely drips with funk. "I'll See You There" once again works twice as hard as it needs to only to build a mildly interesting track. Some of the music feels obligational, like the album was something they wanted to get out of the way. Ed Simons also has stated that he won't be able to be part of the touring act due to his focus on academic work, confirming the noncommittal feeling that pervades the record.

The winners on the album remind us of the mercurial energy found on the first five or so Chemical Brothers albums. "Under Neon Lights" pairs Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) with an absolutely eerie production sending shivers up and down your spine.

However, the guys wait until the last two tracks to really unleash the genius. "Radiate" sounds like a wedding song for two ravers in love. The synths create such an erotic, decadent rush. Final track "Wide Open" featuring Beck is tame in comparison to their classics, but it builds a nice momentum on its late-era New Order vibe. Beck melds with the track nicely, happily eschewing the rustic, mellow feel of his recent work.

Born In The Echoes feels like it is trying to recapture some of the vibe of their high watermark Dig Your Own Hole, from its black-and-white album art to its back-to-basics feel. However, the initial shock of that album can't be recreated or forced to happen again. The rewarding moments of the album make it plainly aware just how talented these guys are at creating new worlds with their music. Here's to hoping that the next record rekindles that passion.

The Chemical Brothers headline North Coast Music Festival on Sunday, Spetmeber 6th and tickets are still available.

By: Andy Derer