Monday, January 23, 2017

Bonobo - Migration Review

Bonobo's a sort of mystical unicorn to me. An arbitrary one, mind you, but one no less. His music, pressed on me for as long as I've been entertaining Electronica, has never felt interesting enough to assimilate with. In that sense, he's a unicorn who grazes in plain sight, boring me because from afar he just looks like a horse. As has been the case these past few years, every artist whose been remotely on my radar has been given a shot. Bonobo's no different. With 2017 looming on the horizon, Migration, his newest affair, came into picture with the jittery, downtempo collage of 'Kerala' as the lead single. Partly drawn in thanks to the song's peculiar music video, which abided by the track's synth loops, 'Kerala' would officially become my first listened to Bonobo track. That is, of course, ignoring the myriad of instrumental pieces I'm sure filled my Pandora playlist years ago, as it endlessly played on in the background of an hours-long gaming session. Nonetheless, with interest building over music in general, it was time to pet the unicorn. Effort and professionalism describe Migration, an album that's composed brilliantly, but, like the horse with a horn attached to its head, isn't all that interesting.

Hope was high entering my first listen as both 'Break Apart' and 'No Reason,' the second and third singles respectively, excited me thanks to Bonobo's surprising range. Unlike 'Kerala,' which set on confirming stereotypes of a pre-disposed sound, 'Break Apart' and 'No Reason' featured singers. This wasn't usual for similar acts like Emancipator, Tycho, and Four Tet, so I was curious as to how Bonobo could pull off the shift to Alternative R&B territory, no matter how redundant that genre's become of late. Thankfully both Rhye's appearance on 'Break Apart' and Nick Murphy's on 'No Reason' thrive, in large part, because Bonobo's capabilities extend far enough out to accommodate them. Had they conformed to his style, the result would've been a travesty of sheer boredom. And while both singles tread that line in the early stages, each eventually blossom with a larger purpose. Rhye's presence on the hook of 'Break Apart' is stunning, as is Bonobo's lingering presence around him, making the early album standout one of Migration's best. 'No Reason' doesn't hit the same highs, but the seven-minute track patiently billows, and before you know it the slow, contemporary piece has turned into an all out Dance track for the club scene.

The most prominent feature of these two songs, 'Kerala,' and more, is that they're smart. Maybe that's why Migration doesn't have a lasting impact, because, just like a straight A student, Bonobo does everything by the books. He's talented, knowledgeable, and surely an expert on the scene he's been associated with for well over a decade. But rarely does that make for an artist intent on experimenting. Even in the cases where Bonobo does, like 'Grains' or 'Bambro Koyo Ganda,' he's merely reading from a different book. In these two cases; Four Tet's guide on how to use foreign vocal samples. The latter in particular is a mess, doing nothing with the extended vocal chants given, merely inserting some standard drum n' bass into the foreground. Enjoy this track or want to see it improved? Check out Clap! Clap!'s Tayi Bebba, a wonderful LP disguising UK Bass as futuristic african hymns. Even in this instance, 'Bambro Koyo Ganda' transitions Migration with no warning, further proving that one such shoe-in track can never insert itself into a tracklist without cohesion being a limiting side effect. The short and sweet 'Kerala,' which follows suit, only marginally regains the lost step 'Bambro' suffered.

Elsewhere, Migration comes equip with predictable tracks that met my stereotyped Bonobo analysis. This isn't entirely disconcerting, comparing reality to perception was an inevitable downside to listening to Bonobo, but songs like 'Second Sun' and 'Ontario' are so ordinary their middle of the road consensus feels utterly passive and unremarkable. They don't lack in quality, more so ambition. The former, for example, would only work as a quick intro or outro, not a nearly four-minute track placed at the album's crucial apex. And despite how anthemic 'Ontario' becomes, with a clashing of drums, bells, and horns at its climax, the basis by which it's founded upon feels as if any remaining ounce of creativity has been sucked from its soundboard. However, there are two other instances in which predictability comes into play, and both encounters aren't nearly as derivative. 'Migration' and '7th Sevens' pace themselves eloquently, building minute layers upon one another, like Gold Panda-esque Microhouse, until resting in a completed state that feels suitable. Just the right amount of professionalism and creativity are present in both tracks, each adding a dash of atmosphere for good measure, making for relaxing Downtempo Ambient that, with enough life, can never go wrong.

As I've noted throughout, Bonobo seems to elicit impressions from other artists. Whether it's Four Tet, Gold Panda, or even Caribou ('Outlier'), Migration hinges on current acts in relative sight of the Britain-based musician himself. Now whether those aforementioned acts borrowed from him and he's now repaying inspiration in return remains to be seen, but the similarities are there. Even on 'Surface,' another solid Alternative R&B track with Nicole Miglis, Bonobo fastens himself as Flume, if only a bit more casual and reserved. However, there is one track in particular, arguably Migration's best, where all Bonobo's talents, inspirations, and goals are achieved; 'Figures.' Molding nimble percussion, dripping synths, and periodic bass around a wonderfully-arranged vocal sample, 'Figures' closes Migration out beautifully. The track even enjoys its infinity, moving out temperamentally with sobbing strings and fading instrumentation. Classically a case of outro fodder, 'Figures' hides behind no ulterior motive other than to delicately wrap Migration up in a resolute affair. Just like the rest of the LP, 'Figures' is pretty, well-composed, and succinct. However, there's times when that pristine mask becomes too safe to excite. An album relying on its own beauty without fearing the need to be different.

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