Bonobo shows growth and skill on the promising ‘Migration’ [Album Review]
There’s a common series of complaints leveled against electronic music- that it all sounds the same, and that it takes little skill to create. While these types of comments are enough to make those of us invested in the scene see red, one has to acknowledge that these complaints do have a undercurrent of truth to them. The possibilities and ease of use of modern DAWs have opened up the process of electronic music making to the masses; one need no longer spend years training and honing their craft to get a record contract when they can turn out radio-ready tunes with a free Soundcloud profile and a 15 minute Ableton tutorial video.
Largely, this democratization is a good thing; more opportunity means more diversity and creativity in the scene, allowing more voices to be heard. But, all too often, the same tools that are used by one producer to break barriers are used by others as a crutch, a way to fill the space where talent and vision should reside. Thankfully, if there’s one thing that Bonobo has demonstrated over the course of his nearly 20-year career, it’s that he is, without a doubt, in the former category. The electronica producer, real name Simon Green, is one of the brilliant minority of producers that is always moving forward, and always pushing his sound in new and interesting ways. Green’s latest album, Migration, show no signs of slowing down.
Migration is Bonobo’s sixth LP, and with that kind of career, most artists would be content to rest on their laurels, to settle on the sound that made them popular and resist change. But Bonobo has steadfastly refused to be complacent, and on his newest album, his style has evolved to its most tightly-coiled and intelligent form yet. A truly innovative producer, Green treats all of sound as his instrument, and he plays it with a confident, refreshing virtuosity.
The title track opens the album with gentle piano notes the rise out from a bed of colorful evolving textures, filling out with layers of vocals chops and gleaming cymbal hits and eventually growing into a radiant, ambient beat that wouldn’t be out of place on Tycho’s Epoch. “Kerala” takes simple harp and vocal samples and plays them backwards and forewords on top of each other to otherworldly effect. Even when the album overplays its hand, like on the overstuffed 8-minute odyssey “Outlier,” the result is never boring. A bit distracting and noisy, perhaps, but always changing, always moving.
The guest vocalists on the album manage to be effective and impactful without drawing attention from the main attraction. Rhye’s Milosh is airy and serene on “Break Apart,” while Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis is the perfect addition to the dreamy, echoing “Surface.” Even the newly christened Nick Murphy (formerly known as Chet Faker) brings a delicacy and affect to “No Reason” that he often reaches for on his own songs, without giving in to the melodrama that occasionally plagues his solo work.
As consistently interesting and technically compelling as Migration is, it isn’t perfect, at times seemingly afraid to be as adventurous as it would like. The best parts of the album are those when it embraces its weirdness, and branches out eagerly into peculiarity. The delightfully off-kilter “Grains” comes to mind, which opens with a stuttering chorus of modulated vocal cuts, and builds tension with distorted strings and halting, irregular percussion. It’s a strange song, engrossing and exciting precisely because it’s so different.
“Bambo Koyo Ganda,” likewise makes the unusual marriage of Moroccan gnawa music and a funky house beat an infectious success, and the album’s highpoint, “Ontario,” manages to bring together a lush chords, skittering drum rolls, buzzing sound effects, and a sitar melody into one congruent, delirious soundscape. But even at its most nonsensical, Migration feels slightly tempered, a bit restrained. Its sonic experiments, its departures from convention, are what make this album interesting, and one is left wishing that it had embraced this more, that it had taken more risks, and jumped head first into the bizarre, kaleidoscopic vision it hints at in its best moments.
But these complaints are relatively minor, and perhaps particular to the listener. There are no real weak spots on the album, just places for improvement, and the sheer technical scope of it is admirable in and of itself. Migration is Bonobo at the height of his powers, the culmination of a long careers worth of progress, success, and evolution. It’s a vivd and complete album, well thought out and executed with style. Not even the harshest of critics could say that it is unoriginal or unimpressive, and we cannot wait to see what Bonobo does next.