Bonobo’s boiler room set more than a year ago opened with what we now know as ‘Cirrus’, the third track off his new album The North Borders. It just about passes itself off as a club track, aided by its smooth transition to Eliphino in the mix, but the song itself acts as a pretty good standard for the album as a whole and where Simon Green – the multi-instrumentalist/turntabalist/producer known as Bonobo – has taken himself since 2001’s Animal Magic.
This debut LP set the scene for what to expect from a Bonobo release; a fantastic range of instruments, rhythms and extremely catchy basslines sealed into a genre some called lounge, others nu-jazz. Follow up Dial M for Monkey cleaned up the production, giving the LP less DJ Shadow grit whilst upping the jazz’s influence. Three years later, Days to Come took instrumentation up yet another peg with more live instruments, singers and was the first album to really free itself from the ‘lounge’ brand. Black Sands, now 3 years old, fully shook off comparisons to Amon Tobin and Mr Scruff in favour of the hallowed company of The Cinematic Orchestra in terms of the quality of musicianship and songcraft. Fused with inspiration from emerging UK electronic talent, the remix album featured Machinedrum, Letherette, Floating Points and Falty DL. Black Sands is easily one of my favourite albums of the last decade, and this unfortunately means that my expectations for this follow-up are rather high.
The North Borders is thirteen tracks long (eight of which are instrumental), a bit short of an hour, well paced and definitely not a dull listen, but not quite filling –nor trying to fill – Black Sands’ shoes. My suspicions were raised when Bonobo tweeted “played most of the new album last night” after a DJ set in Berlin – and yes, most of this new album, contrary to Black Sands, has enough repetition to be played in a dark room and do ok. But none of the songs are going to fit into a Bangers and Mash set bar maybe ‘Sapphire’ or ‘Transits’ (the latter of which, had it had a “ft.Burial” tag after it, would not have surprised me).
So the problem is it’s not quite club music, but it doesn’t give the instruments the same amount of space they had on say, ‘El Toro’, ‘Transmission94’, ‘D Song’ and more than half of the songs Green’s ever put out. Black Sands stood out because it was a jazz record influenced by the UK club scene. The North Borders is an electronic record influenced by jazz, and I feel it suffers for it.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some finer moments. The album opens with the distinctly un-clubby ‘First Fires’ featuring one of Ninja Tune’s few singer songwriters, Grey Reverend. A calm delivery surrounded by a variety of clever bleepy bloopy noises, the song is a pleasant if slightly underwhelming listen. Midway through the record ’Towers’ sounds like a cross between fellow jazz-electronic welders Portico Quartet’s ‘Steepless’ (the vocalist for which, Cornelia, also features on the closing track of this album) and Foals’ ‘Spanish Sahara’. It’s not bad, but they don’t compare to the previously releases tracks featuring Andreya Triana or Bajka in terms of production nor deliverance. ‘Heaven for a Sinner’ is pretty great – but it seems like they spent most of their session musician budget on getting Erykah Badu in to sing on it. Personally I’d prefer the occasional trumpet, one of the many instruments Green seems to have decided he’s bored of.
Before you get the wrong idea, I don’t dislike this album. The typewriter-tapped beat on ‘Ten Tigers’ is a tremendous piece of work and ‘Antenna’ in the latter half of the record injects some much needed bounce into proceedings. As an expedition into deeper electronic waters it’s an interesting and mostly engaging listen that will probably place him closer to the Four Tets than his Tru Thoughts/Ninja Tune brethren. However, it feels like he’s set off to explore new territories and accidentally ended up back at Days to Come with a copy of Ableton and half his instruments missing. Either Bonobo has created a sub-genre of the UK music called string-step, or it’s awkwardly positioned itself little outside of the norm to quite fit in anywhere.By Rory Foster