ALBUM REVIEW: Simian Mobile Disco – Unpatterns

Written for the 405

No one would advise the members of Simian Mobile Disco to quit their day-jobs. Okay, so one half of the group, Jas Shaw, isn’t up to much during daylight hours, but the “face” of SMD – James Ford – is best known through his work as indie producer to the stars. He’s worked with artists as diverse as Beth Ditto, the Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine and earned himself a nice bit of indie cred through osmosis.

It’s what the duo do in their beneath the cloak of the night, once the studio is theirs, that remains something of an unknown quantity. Attack Sustain Decay Release, 2007’s debut under the Simian Mobile Disco guise (following the dissipation of the electro-pop group Simian the pair were part of) caused some waves amongst people who were into that kind of thing (that kind of thing being pop-leaning electro house), whilst 2009’s Temporary Pleasure managed to slip under the radar, despite a cavalcade of guest vocalists – Gruff Rhys, Alexis from Hot Chip – on board.

On album number three, SMD have a more focused modus operandi. The music is less uniform than that of Attack Sustain Decay Release, and Temporary Pleasure’s reliance on outside talents to spice things up is almost wholly abandoned for an album of almost exclusively instrumentals.

Taking a side-step off the dance floor, but with one foot still firmly rooted in place (night clubs do tend to have pretty sticky floors) amidst the flashing lights and throbbing bass amps, the music of Unpatterns is sharp, consistent and considered. Motifs build and fade, keys buzz (and, on “A Species out of Control” especially, sound like the twinkling control deck of a sci-fi spaceship) whilst, at the heart of it all, the beats pulse like, well, heartbeats.

It can be difficult to chart maturity in dance music, if indeed it’s even evident. The arc SMD are following isn’t a million miles away from The Chemical Brothers; musically, they’ve been developing in a similar fashion, from a grab-bag of what’s popular in electronic music, slowly refining things down to the really interesting sounds to be made. It means the music is a lot more stripped down, minimalistic, with a fetishistic attention to detail. Every rhythm, every 808 pop, sounds crystal clear, pitch perfect, and placed at the exact right place in each track.

Therein lies part of the problem. The minimalist approach, coinciding with the lack of guest vocalists – and therefore, lack of any vocals at all – means that SMD struggle to find much variation amidst the nine tracks of Unpatterns. Being their most consistent album to date also means it’s the least surprising, the least dynamic and – save for penultimate track “Your Love Ain’t Fair”, built around a euphoric, Moby-like soul sample – the least danceable. Which isn’t great for an album of dance music.

Restraint is a vital component of dance music, the build up to the drop, the ability not to clutter a song with every weird noise you can create with your set-up. Unpatterns, whilst focused, exercises almost too much restraint. It’s impressive to hear, sure, but also sort of cold, calculated. Too efficient, if anything. Where’s the fun? For an album built around simple, clockwork (heart)beats, it’s particularly bloodless.

5/10

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