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Album Review: Simian Mobile Disco – Whorl

3 min read

It’s rare that a rhythm section goes on to achieve more success than the “more famous” half of a band, but when the five-year career of Mancunian indie-pop quartet Simian came to an end in 2005, drummer James Ford and keyboardist Jas Shaw did exactly that. In the nine years since this fortuitous split, their electro splinter group Simian Mobile Disco has gone on to release three studio albums starting with Attack Decay Sustain Release in 2007 before Temporary Pleasure and Unpatterns in 2009 and 2012 respectively. This month they try something almost unheard-of for an electronic duo – a live record. Well, not really a live record, but the basic tracks for what eventually turned into this month’s fourth LP Whorl were recorded with only two synthesizers and two sequencers in front of an intimate audience in Pioneertown, not far from California’s legendary Joshua Tree National Park before being spruced up in the studio for the album’s release on September 9th.

Simian Mobile Disco - Whorl (350x350)Ford is a respected producer independently of Simian Mobile Disco (he’s worked with everyone from Canadian powerhouse Peaches to Arctic Monkeys and Florence & the Machine) and stated that after years of stressing the importance of “getting the take” to the bands with whom he works, it was time he played by the same rules himself. Conceptually, this is a great idea but the results on Whorl are pretty mixed.

The opening pair of tracks – Redshift and Dandelion Spheres – with their decidedly minimalist synth drones and (possibly-a-little-too-much) ambience will probably determine whether you’re in for the long haul or whether there’s just not enough going on the pique your interest. It’s interesting for a band with the word “Disco” in their name that the faintest semblance of a beat doesn’t occur until a good ten minutes into the record on Sun Dogs. Again though, respect must be paid to the duo for their innovative approach to the streamlining of electronica, but it definitely demands a lot from what you might expect of a record like this.

The jittery groove and intricate, syncopated bleep work on Hypnick Jerk pick things up a little before the late-night synth haze of Dervish shimmers and flickers over you with ominous, controlled dynamics rarely heard in electronic music. That’s probably the thing that saves Whorl as a whole – despite the sometimes-soulless nature of ambient electronica as a genre, the feel that’s created by Ford and Shaw throughout is completely inimitable. There’s definitely some heart in their circuitry.

Z Space creates a similar dynamic arc in a way that sounds like a poor little synthesizer lost and scared in a city it doesn’t know but the slow-burning restraint of Nazard drags kind of aimlessly. The rich, pitch-bent chords of Calyx slink over some glitchy programming but swell under a fat, side-chained kick. It also goes to show that Whorl – despite succeeding with its minimal ethos – could use a few more tracks like this to break up some of the atmospherics that at times prevent the record from truly taking flight.

Jam Side Up stops just shy of becoming squelchy, ‘80s synth-funk and Tangents well and truly lives up to its name with sweeping filters and a forward-moving groove that reels you back in if your mind has started to wander this late in the record. The album closes out with the space-age porno groove turned post-apocalyptic film soundtrack of Iron Henge and things come full circle with the airy, dissonant soundscape of Casiopeia.

Overall, Whorl can be tough going in parts. As far as electronica goes, it’s definitely blurring the boundaries between dance music and art music and even after the record’s over it remains unclear whether it really succeeds at either. That being said, the irony of recording an album this way in a place called Pioneertown shouldn’t be overlooked – there are precious few synth producers who have the balls to make a record outside the comfortable confines of a studio where everything is totally under control at all times and Simian Mobile Disco have fearlessly managed to do just that.

2 thoughts on “Album Review: Simian Mobile Disco – Whorl

  1. just got done with it. Great review, perfectly sums it up. They’re so good but a lot of parts don’t come together for me.

  2. I love the progression of this album though, it’s a totally different sound for SMD (and in some cases appeals more than their previous work based on other artists I also listen to).

    I think the final four tracks really saves this album, it just gets into a really great jam.

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