Veteran electronic artist Bonobo expands his horizons on his sixth studio album, building on his atmospheric landscapes of sound to feature the human voice prominently through samples and well-chosen collaborators. As the lengthy album moves across multiple dimensions of sound, all tied together with the DJ’s signature melodic and downtempo style, it is easy to become lost in these long, winding tracks, some of which extend to 7-8 minutes. The combinations of calming instrumentals and intense live drum instrumentation on nearly every track contribute to a genre-defying and ambitious project that could truly be enjoyed by anyone.
The music is very immersive and while not overly complex, features a select few interlocking elements working very well together that was clearly painstakingly thought through. The project goes everywhere at once, running through eclectic trip-hop beats, African-influenced tribal music, and R&B-style electronica from featured artists like Rhye. I could see this music being played at a club, but somehow at the same time it sounds like a soundtrack accompanying someone gazing out over an expansive wilderness and contemplating existence.
To display the wide range of genres further, in addition to Rhye the project features folk band Hundred Waters’ frontwoman Nicole Miglis, and Nick Murphy – formerly known as Chet Faker, the man who seamlessly blends Bonobo’s type of instrumentals with his emotive soul voice, who each knock their guest spots out of the park. Bonobo’s firm grasp of his own style and strengths easily shows here as he manages to make this wide range of sounds all sound obviously like him – and the adaptation of his style to accommodate his guests works incredibly well.
“Surface”, the Nicole Miglis track, is absolutely beautiful, alternating from steadily ascending and oscillating serene synth lines to a huge drumbeat and a harmonized, catchy chorus from the soft-spoken Miglis. Her voice is packed with so much character and inflection and is a stellar centerpiece to the world Bonobo has created. The percussion is the all-around strong suit of the album — it is mostly done live and serves to make the beauty of the quieter backgrounds more noticeable than sleepy and trance-like when standing on their own. Standing in contrast to the smoother tones, the beats make them pop. A track like “Second Sun”, the album’s most stripped down which displays the classic Bonobo high-pitched and calming synths, is great but it’s not engaging enough without any of the other aspects he also does well.
“Bambro Koyo Ganda”, featuring Moroccan band Innov Gnawa, is a huge risk and show of creativity, as it blends tribal-sounding music, complete with chanting and handclaps, with a pulsating club-ready techno beat. Bonobo’s diversity truly cannot be understated. The way these songs tend to shift and change over the course of their runtime is another highlight – “Outlier” is very long, and in the middle drops this catchy techno loop that becomes the base for its second half to build upon, whereas “Kerala” starts out slow and later surprises with a snappy electronic beat and chopped-up sample of singer Brandy’s voice.
While this would be a great album to put on in the background of any social event, the key word is background. The music is very chilled-out, frequently undemanding of attention or hitting the emotional highs and lows of a typical album. It is a constant atmosphere to get lost in for an hour, but can tend to fade back into the recesses of your mind. Bonobo likes to build the sprawling world of his tracks around a central motif, and when they are less interesting the tracks can really suffer, especially because many of them are so lengthy and drawn-out. The moaning and low-pitched female voice on “Grains”, for example, gets a bit grating, and while it may have served well sparingly, as it is a truly interesting and unique sound, it shouldn’t be placed at the forefront of a pretty slow track.
Bonobo is deep enough into his career to know exactly what he is doing, and since breaking further into the public eye than ever before with his previous album, 2013’s The North Borders, went bigger and better to great success on Migration. The grasp of artistry displayed here is pretty incredible, and even if it is a bit indulgent, people this good have the right to be.
Favourite Tracks: Surface, Bambro Koyo Ganda, Break Apart, Kerala, Migration
Least Favourite Track: Grains