Monday 24 October 2016

Music: Brothers back to reclaim EDM crown

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Legacy: Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are back with a new Chemical Brothers album
Legacy: Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are back with a new Chemical Brothers album

'Best. Sunday night. Ever" tweeted Nadine O'Regan, the arts broadcaster who presents an engaging show on Dublin alternative music station TXFM, and is not usually given to such hyperbolic outbursts. Nadine had just witnessed The Chemical Brothers bringing the Longitude festival at Dublin's Marlay Park to a spectacular close. I'd been away, but early the following morning my misery was compounded when a friend sent me a text that read, "You missed the gig of the year last night. Chem Bros incredible."

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I shouldn't have been surprised. On every single occasion over the years when I've seen Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons in action, I've been struck by what a sensational performance they're capable of. And these geeks, who can happily walk down the street unmolested, seem to be as engaged with the business of being The Chemical Brothers in their mid-40s as they were when barely out of their teens.

More than most of their peers, or all those outfits who followed in their wake, Rowlands and Simons have managed to retain an outsider's sensibility, while delivering one huge crowd-pleaser after the next. It's crossover dance music par excellence, the type they've been turning out for 20 years and it makes the sort of EDM proffered by Avicii and Sebastian Ingrosso seem slight, inconsequential and utterly homogeneous.

With so much of the cultural life of 2015 seemingly inspired by the 1990s, it's little wonder that The Chemical Brothers have been a big draw on the festival circuit this summer, but don't accuse them of being on a nostalgia trip. This weekend, the duo released an excellent new album, Born in the Echoes, which demonstrates that their ability to deliver big-hearted, catch-all, block rockin' beats (to borrow the title of their most perfectly named song), that's somehow in tune with the zeitgeist is still very much intact.

And a cursory examination of their back catalogue suggests that, despite some troughs, they have been remarkably consistent - not an observation that can be extended to many of their peers, whether electronic-minded or guitar-toting. It helps that the new album features some inspired collaborations, including Beck, Q-Tip and St Vincent, but the compositions are iron-cast and more than capable of standing alongside the best of what they've done before.

After a comparatively fallow 2000s, they have proved to be much stronger this decade with 2010 album Further suggesting that they were keen for a piece of a burgeoning EDM scene, especially in the US. Born in the Echoes should help them connect with a generation who weren't even born when their seminal debut, Exit Planet Dust, was released in 1995.

Rowlands and Simons met at the end of the 1980s when both were studying history at the University of Manchester. It was a great time and a great city for music devotees thanks to the likes of whipper-snappers The Stone Roses, the well-established New Order and a club, The Hacienda, which, though long defunct, now rivals that of New York's old Studio 54 for cultural importance.

At first, they called themselves The Dust Brothers, in homage to the production team responsible for such albums as The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay, but they would be forced to change the name after the original Dust Brothers objected (hence Exit Planet Dust, released after the forced name change).

From their earliest incarnation, Rowlands and Simons were keen for their music to embrace several different genres and not simply remain in the dance ghetto. The mid-1990s saw a fertile meeting of minds and much of their subsequent success can be traced to a tiny, but influential club night they ran in the Albany pub, London, that attracted such intrigued punters as Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and The Charlatans' Tim Burgess. Relationships were fostered and future collaborations too, most notably Gallagher's vocal contribution to both Setting Sun, the standout track on second album Dig Your Own Hole, and the even more Beatlesque Let Forever Be in 1999.

While their latest album's true worth will only be detected in time, their creative high water mark remains Exit Planet Dust. Not only did it shake the foundations of UK dance, thanks to its fusion of house and hip-hop, but this expansive album, packed with memorable tunes, also spoke to those who wouldn't normally give electronica the time of day.

The pair's love of indie and alternative music was evident in their songs, not least the breakthrough single Song to the Siren, which sampled dream pop This Mortal Coil paying homage to Tim Buckley's 1970 song of the same name. That song also boasts a sample from another unexpected source, ethereal gothic rockers Dead Can Dance. The NME's Stephen Dalton captured it well in his June 1995 review when noting "This is brash, raw, rule-bending gear made by open-minded music fans, for open-minded music fans."

Ed Simons was, understandably, bullish about the album when interviewed before the release of Dig Your Own Hole: "We did come up with a new sound... We came up with our own mutant thing, and now people make records that sound like ours."

Yet, perhaps the most revolutionary thing they did was to make dance music work in the context of a fully fledged album. Up to then techno fans, for instance, subsisted largely on a diet of singles. Exit Planet Dust showed that era-defining albums didn't have to come from conventional sources.

"Nobody from the dance world has come up with an album to reflect this time," Simons said. "Why is it left to a group like Oasis to express the way that young people want to go out and get battered every weekend? That's what The Chemical Brothers are about."

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